Wings for Autism Review: Giving Special Needs Children a Practice Run at Air Travel
If you are a family with a special needs child and would like to travel on a plane with him/her in the future, baystateparent's October issue has a great article on "Wings for Autism," which is a program that allows families to literally practice every facet of air travel before you fly.
You'll find the article on our website as well as in our print version. For more information, however, we offer a personal review of the "Wings for Autism," program from a family who experienced it. Please read the account below.
Best of luck with your travel plans! Carrie
photo courtesy of the Agudelo family
A Participant Mom’s Perspective
By Wendy Agudelo
My family, comprised of three children 5 years and under—two with special needs, was one of those families generously offered an opportunity to participate in the unique "Wings for Autism" program, created from scratch by The Charles River Center and its collaborators—JetBlue, Massport/Logan Airport and TSA. This stunning, out-of-the-box program, allows families containing members with special needs (Autism, intellectual or sensory challenges, etc.) an opportunity to practice run the entire process of air travel—from entry to the airport and ticketing, to security and a tour of the cockpit.
Our three children prepared for the special day by packing their individual backpacks with snacks and a few small toys, in preparation for the drive to Logan Airport. Once parked, we entered the airport terminal and made a quick pit-stop at the bathrooms so that everyone could use the facilities prior to reaching the ticket desk (a good idea for every parent). The children immediately digested the sounds of the terminal, which was relatively quiet as it had been partially shut down for the event, and each of them reveled in the ride up the escalator to the ticketing desks.
Upon reaching the desk, we were very warmly greeted by a JetBlue representative who checked all of us in using our licenses/passports, and away we walked to the first security checkpoint. At this moment, but my husband and I began to feel concerned. It was loud, busy, and we knew that the kids were going to be expected to remove their backpacks, shoes, and hats before sauntering through the security scanners. Prior to reaching the checkpoint, the children were asked to respond to simple questions from a TSA agent who asked them their names and ages—likely to confirm identity. We were amazed that all three of them were calm, collected, and answered all questions perfectly. Whew! Soon after, we were greeted by other TSA representatives who assisted our children with their backpacks and helped them select bins and place within them their shoes/hats. We thought this would definitely be a moment of major meltdown as one of our children uses his hat to ‘shield’ himself from both visual and auditory sensory overload. Amazingly, the children handled this element as if it was an adventure and the TSA agents joked with the children—telling them how much they liked their hats, etc. Each team member seemed to want to make the experience more comfortable—which was a first for my husband and myself—both very active travelers.
Almost instinctively, the TSA agents leaned down to help the children and joked with them a bit in an effort to make them comfortable.
After departing the security area and reaching the gate, our kids spent some time looking out the large windows upon the tarmac below—investigating the airplanes, baggage handlers, and pilots looking over the planes. We were extremely impressed with the team members from JetBlue Airways as well, who not only had several pilots available to meet and greet the guests, but flight attendants as well. They mingled with the crowds, squatted down to chat with the kids and even agreed to take pictures—as if they were celebrities. To our children, they obviously were.
We boarded the plane not long after, and were greeted by flight attendants who escorted us through the plane, taking time to highlight the cockpit, bathrooms and galley areas—offering our children the opportunity to sit in the cockpit, flush the toilets (which are incredibly loud and scary to many children), sit in the jump seats and actually make plane-wide announcements (incredibly precious). In addition, each child was given a goodie bag—filled with gluten-free treats and water, so that they could take a seat on the plane, fasten their seatbelt, and watch TV from the seats for a while. Each one of our children was in their glory as they enjoyed their snacks and lounged on the plane for a short while.
The announcement was made soon after that it was time to deplane, and our children, surprisingly, were devastated. They did not want to get off the plane!
From a parent of children with special needs opinion, this was a superbly executed event on every level. Several of the staff members from each division involved took the opportunity to express how much they wanted to volunteer for the event as they hoped to familiarize themselves more closely with the makeup of children with needs so that they could “better serve them when they travel.” It was actually moving to hear so many voices of support, since typically in airport scenarios, it’s a very hurried, and rushed feeling that overcomes everyone who is bounding ticketing to gate, or gate to baggage claim—the most obnoxious area being security checkpoints where patience is not a word in anyone’s vocabulary, it seems.
All three of our little ones had a very pleasant, non-stressful experience, resulting in our finalizing plans to travel internationally with them.
For interested families, the Wings for Autism program will be held again in early November (likely the first weekend, but check this website for confirmation), again hosted by The Charles River Center (www.charlesrivercenter.org) and its collaborators. Pre-registration is open and participation in the event is absolutely free.
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