This post is by Lisa Goring, Autism Speaks Vice President, Family Services.
Saturday, May 19th marked the third Wings for Autism event at Logan Airport in Boston, MA. Wings for Autism is the collaborative effort of The Charles River Center, Massachusetts Port Authority, Transportation Security, JetBlue and TSA- Homeland Security; the program provides families of children with autism, the opportunity to get familiar with air travel in a realistic, but low pressure setting.
The morning began with staff from The Charles River Center providing training to volunteers from JetBlue (including pilots, inflight crew and staff at the ticket counter and boarding gates), Logan Airport personnel and TSA-Homeland Security. The training instructed the volunteers about autism and how it impacts those affected by the diagnosis as well as their families, especially in travel situations. All of the volunteers arrived in uniform to participate in the event and to add to the authenticity of the experience. The Charles River Center also provided the participating families with social stories about air travel that could be used to prepare their children with autism for the event.
At 9:00am the first group of approximately 50 families entered the airport. They checked in at the ticket counter, walked through security and waited at the gate before beginning the boarding process. JetBlue and United Airlines graciously donated planes so that the participants could have the full experience of air travel. Families boarded the aircrafts by row and were able to sit in their seats and listen as the flight attendants explained the safety procedures. The planes were turned on so that the participants could hear the sounds of the engine, and snacks were served. There was also the opportunity for participants to sit in the cockpit in order to truly get the whole experience. After the “flight” was over, the families were invited to another part of the terminal to celebrate their successful trip with snacks and gift bags!
A total of three practice trips took place on Saturday, with approximately 150 individuals with autism and their families, providing them with the opportunity to practice skills that will expand their experiences as well as those of their families. Many families spoke of the difficulty of air travel and noted that Wings for Autism provided the practice necessary to know if air travel could be an option for their family. Most families left the event feeling more confident that air travel is something that they could do!
I learned through the training that TSA–Homeland Security has a program called TSA Cares that will provide supports to families with special needs as they travel. JetBlue can also be contacted to provide additional assistance at the airport. This is very good news – we know that with the right supports and opportunities to practice in authentic situations, people living with autism can overcome challenges that may initially seem overwhelming. I strongly encourage other airports and airlines to provide similar practice sessions as well as the other simple supports needed to make air travel a reality for those with autism.
Please find more information about travel in this issue of 'Community Connections'