For families of children with special needs, the very definition of “travel” can easily morph into an effort riddled with worry and concern. Traveling as a matter of course is exhausting for anyone, let alone a child. Busy airports are often abuzz with more than a million sensory inputs — from noises and smells to sounds and movement. It can be overwhelming for the average person, but insert a child with anxiety, sensory concerns, or a developmental delay, and air travel can become an active nightmare. These extra challenges can be devastating and puzzling for parents who have spent hard-earned dollars on plane tickets, hotel stays, and photo-worthy activities — all of which can be inadvertently lost should their family be unable to travel.

The Littlejohn family of Massachusetts represents one such family, whose much-anticipated trip to Walt Disney World never made it farther than Logan Airport because one of the family’s two sons, 6-year-old Henry, was spooked by the airport noise, beeps, and loudspeakers. Although the family made it onto the plane, the child with autism could not be settled nor buckled for takeoff. As the family had already invested a large amount of non-refundable money, dad and big brother Jack flew to Orlando, while mom Susan and Henry remained behind. This disappointing result and failed travel attempt, in fact, became the inspiration for a now nationally-expanded travel test drive program called Wings for Autism.

When Susan Littlejohn recounted her story to Jennifer Robtoy Ryan, former director of autism services for the Charles River Center (CRC), Ryan immediately recognized an opportunity: create a program that would help Henry and potentially thousands of other families experience components of airline travel without ever having to leave the ground. “I just thought, Wouldn’t it be great if families could actually experience what air travel would be like before they spend money on tickets and make extensive travel plans?” Ryan says. With determination in hand, she reached out to the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan Airport, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and various major airlines to pitch her idea. To her immense satisfaction, her idea gained immediate traction, and in 2011, the very first Wings for Autism program was held in Boston.

At its core, Wings for Autism is a real-time travel dress rehearsal for children with special needs (Autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, etc.), and children who suffer from severe anxiety, or a developmental or intellectual disability. The program pre-orchestrates all steps from airport entry and ticketing, to security checks and boarding an aircraft, with the overarching goal of alleviating some of the stress experienced when traveling by plane. Each participant is guided by volunteers through the airport as they obtain boarding passes, move through security and gate check, and ultimately, board a plane. In addition, the practice gives parents a practical opportunity through which to establish a travel routine or social story, key for many children with special needs who require structure and repetition and, occasionally, visual reinforcement.

Families are not the sole beneficiaries of Wings for Autism. Volunteer staff from airlines, airports, and the TSA gain an opportunity to observe, interact, and deliver services in a structured, learning environment to determine how to improve the flight travel experience for all. The experience opens the door to useful, hands-on training alongside an underserved community of travelers, many of which are very unique. Families, too, gain immediate and personal access to airline personnel, TSA agents, and others with whom they can ask questions and share knowledge.

Since its inception in Boston, Wings for Autism has become a nationally-recognized and executed initiative of The Arc of the United States, with support from major airlines, airports, the TSA, and sponsorship from The Doug Flutie Foundation. This evolution includes an alternate moniker, Wings for All, given that the program is fully inclusive and supportive of individuals with all diagnoses and intellectual and developmental disabilities, not strictly those on the autism spectrum. Numerous events have been held since 2011 in major airports across the country including Anchorage, Baton Rouge, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New York, Phoenix, Providence, Seattle and Tulsa to name a few. And although event components — terminals, planes, snacks, goodie bags, T-shirts, buttons and the like — cost money, Wings for Autism/Wings for All events are free for all participants. “Families pay for so much already, that every partner in the Wings for Autism program committed to ensuring that the event is always free for families,” Ryan says.

Related Article: Fighting for Special Needs on Facebook. Wrong medium? Agudelo’s thoughts on the recent removal of a 15-year-old with autism and her family from a flight.

“Magic for Autism” Takes Flight

Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum, insinuating that all businesses, should they wish to be successful, will require greater awareness of the needs of families who contain members with the diagnosis. A man who understands this well is Alan Day, owner of ASD Vacations, which specializes in travel arrangements for families of children with special needs. Day is a travel agent and the parent of a son with autism, and has found a unique way to marry his experience for the benefit of others.

With support from Ryan and Massachusetts-based Wings for Autism programs, Day last year introduced a travel expansion called Magic for Autism. The pre-planned and painstakingly coordinated trip from Boston to Walt Disney World made its maiden voyage last October. Twenty-one families participated in the initial flight coordinated, facilitated, and organized by ASD Vacations from start to finish. “Wings for Autism has become more successful than I ever could have imagined,” Ryan says. “An autism-friendly flight to Disney was always my end goal. I couldn’t be more proud of all that has been accomplished as these families will finally get a trip of a lifetime.”

Day founded ASD Vacations upon realizing how many families desperately need travel-planning assistance and support from someone who understands the challenges they face. “Support is the magic word,” he says. “By providing support — at the airport, on the plane and on the ground — we can ensure that each traveling family experiences the unexplainable ‘magic’ that comes with any trip to Walt Disney World, which is why we dubbed our first flight, ‘Magic for Autism.’” To date, several Magic for Autism flights have taken off from Boston and Worcester (October and May) courtesy of JetBlue Airlines, which is currently the only airline offering Magic for Autism flights.

“I am thrilled beyond belief that my children will finally be able to experience Disney World,” says Rebecca Daugherty, mom of three children, including 10-year-old Riley, who has autism. “In addition to this being inclusive for individuals with ASD, this trip will be tremendously fun for our neuro-typical children who can’t always attend events due to their brother’s needs. The rest of the world often cannot understand what daily life can be like for us, but we’re confident that ASD vacations and the staff at Disney will ensure our trip is a success and filled with cherished memories."

Next page: Tips Preparing Children With Special Needs For Airline Travel

Tips Preparing Children With Special Needs For Airline Travel

Plan ahead and remain flexible: Knowing your child’s idiosyncrasies and factoring each of them into travel planning is incredibly important. You know your child’s limits best. Parents of children with special needs are often thinking two and three steps ahead, and typically have backup, contingency, or Plan B in place for those occasions when a meltdown occurs leading to the abandonment of Plan A. Having a few ideas for mitigating potential challenges before you start your trip can yield amazing benefits. For example, should your child be unable to manage the second leg of a flight or even a return trip, consider renting a car. Call ahead to rental car companies at your first/final destination and consider reaching out to travel supply businesses such as JetSetBabies (jetsetbabies.com) should car seats or other supplies be needed. Or consider scheduling travel around mealtimes, as eating takes time and is a pleasant distraction for both parents (who get a break from having to occupy/distract their child/children) and children alike. Finally, be certain to have all necessary prescriptions filled and the contact information of your child’s physician should you require medical advice or a back-up prescription during your travels.

Practice equals prepared: As most parents of children with special needs will say, the best way to prepare is to over-prepare. Prior to traveling, many families practice at home. They involve their children in all steps from packing/unpacking, leaving the house, and pretend travel at home (lining up kitchen chairs as if on a plane and even enjoying a snack while seated in that position). Similar to adults, advising and reminding children about activities planned each day also helps them to digest and gain comfort with what lays ahead. Therefore, a week prior to departure, take time each day to remind your child what you are planning to do as far as taking a trip (going to the airport, taking a plane to X destination) and highlight planned activities (swimming, amusement parks, museums, sailing, etc.). Many families of children with special needs use visual “social stories” or modeling stories/videos to introduce and prepare their children for new activities/experiences. Should your child use social stories or visual cues, have those drafted in advance and present them regularly during the week prior to travel. As indicated in the related article, leveraging a practice run-through (from home to airplane) will also provide comfort and a routine.

Pack favored/familiar items: Have your child pack a backpack themselves, including their favorite items: toys, stuffed animals, books, snacks (keep airline limits/guidelines in mind), iPad, etc. For MP3 player/ headphones, do not get those with volume-control as once the plane is in the air, you can’t turn the volume up high enough to avoid the noise from the jet. Having familiar items gives comfort that is not only obvious, but super practical. Should your child get upset, suggest they pull out their comfort item to help ease tension or increasing stress. Simply allowing your child to participate in travel preparation can help ease anxiety, while familiarizing them with the process of traveling (packing, deciding what to bring, what to wear, etc.). Parents may want to shop for special travel luggage/suitcases/backpacks so the experience becomes a positive recollection and one in which the child has control.

Start small: Before taking that lengthy 12-hour trip overseas, try one night in a nearby hotel or plan an overnight at a friend’s or grandma’s house. This type of “practice run” may need to be done several times so that your children adjust to a change in venue, schedule, routine, etc. Some parents reserve adjoining hotel rooms, or rooms located at the end of a floor to ease concerns about noise. Other families prefer to rent a house/condo/cottage/suite where they can prepare their own food when a special diet is a concern.

Advise, as needed. Wings for Autism staffers suggest that traveling families may want to contact their scheduled airline a week in advance to advise them of travel plans so that any special considerations or needs, such as advanced boarding, near or further seating from bathrooms (if flushing noise is too upsetting), bulkhead seating, dietary needs, etc., could be noted. In addition, should your family be seated close to other passengers, it may be worthwhile to advise them that your children are traveling for the first time and that it may be a bit frightening for them, and simply respectfully ask for their patience. There is no need to detail your child’s diagnosis, for example, merely advise nearby passengers that you are a parent with an anxious first-time flyer. People are generally supportive of others, especially when you make the first move to show you are being thoughtful of others as well as being as prepared as possible.

— Wendy Bulawa Agudelo