Practice Run Wings for Autism Helps Families Prepare for Air Travel

Air travel can be stressful for any family, but when a child has autism or other special needs, stressors multiply — for both parents and kids.

Kathleen McNally Durkin, executive director of The Arc, lists just a few of the issues people with autism find difficult in airports: “The new sights, new sounds, loud noises, stimulation, anxiety, parking, security. Pretty much all of it.”

But what if families could do a trial run at the airport, to familiarize kids with the experience?

The Arc Baltimore, Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International (BWI) airport and United Airlines offered that opportunity to around 150 families earlier this year with the fourth annual Wings for Autism.

Wings for Autism allows families to experience “a simulation of a travel day, in which the young people experience everything first hand,” says Dee Outlaw, BWI’s manager of corporate and community relations. Parents or caregivers bring their child and any siblings who want to participate to BWI for a mock flight.

The families check in at The Arc’s welcome station and pick up their bright orange t-shirts that identify them as Wings for Autism participants. They bring empty luggage, choose the kiosk or counter to get their boarding pass, check their bags, go through the security checkpoint, walk to the gate, and finally, board a United Airlines plane.

On board, the families are welcomed by the pilots. “Some of them will go in the cockpit if they like to and press the buttons,” Outlaw says. “They get a tour of the bathroom, too, so they can see all the bells and whistles. Then they hear all the precautionary measures that we hear [on a flight.]” The plane doesn’t leave the gate, but still logs in some important lessons.

Kim and Cliff Heard learned about Wings from their kids’ therapist at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Their two children, Candace, 4, and Collin, 3, both have autism, and Kim and Cliff hope to go to Los Angeles. “We’ll see how this works,” Kim says, pointing at the line for the security checkpoint. “It’s going to be interesting.”

On this afternoon, the security line has just a few people, allowing Collin to freely dash under the ropes and around the stanchions faster than his father can catch him. His parents manage to round up Candace and Collin at the conveyer belts, take off their own shoes and load their gear into the conveyer belt with no further escapes. Collin, eating a snack, watches as the items disappear beneath the black plastic slats of the x-ray machine. “Bye shoes!” he calls, waving to them.

TSA officer Tom Stein helps the family move smoothly through the checkpoint, smiling at the kids. Kim marvels at how quickly and easily she felt they’d cleared the obstacle of security. “They let [Collin] bring his food, though,” she whispers in amazement. “He doesn’t like routine changes at all, and I thought they were going to make him throw it away. That was so nice of them. This program is great.” She sighs. “This is actually going pretty well. Usually you never get a practice run.”

Encountering an understanding TSA agent was not just a lucky break for the Heard family. “All TSA and BWI employees are trained to work with people with disabilities,” Outlaw says. “We have volunteers from TSA Cares that will help them, and BWI is fortunate to have retirees volunteering in a program called Pathfinders … to assist and direct people.”

In addition, The Arc preps TSA personnel for this day and also for when families travel for real, Durkin says. “That’s part of the experience [of Wings for Autism.] It’s twofold: It’s for the family, child or adult. And it’s also to train the airport personnel. That way, they really understand.”

In the training, The Arc teaches airport staff “what the experience is like for somebody whose sensory experiences are different. So they learn to not necessarily touch somebody or take their favorite security item. That part can be very difficult for a child with autism,” she says.

Dane Schimpler, 11, triumphed over the anxiety of being parted from his two stuffed animals, Freddie and Bonnie, during the security check.

“He put his animals onto the belt,” his mom Michelle says. “He wasn’t happy about that part, but he did good! He was very happy when they came out of the bin.”

Michelle and her husband Matt had spent time before Wings preparing Dane, explaining each step in the process of getting on to the plane. “I had printed out one of those TSA cards on the internet, so he could give it to them so he can express he has autism,” Michelle says.

One thing Matt wishes they had communicated to Dane beforehand was the amount of downtime between bursts of rushed activity. “I shouldn’t have said: ‘It will be this, then this, then this,” Matt says. “We didn’t stress enough how much we’d be waiting.”

Remy Nirschl, whose husband Richard walks up and down the airport corridor with their teenaged son Nicholas, says: “This is the hardest part, waiting to board. My husband is walking with him and listening for when we’re boarding. [Nicholas] has a lot of neurosensory issues. Noise is a problem, and when there’s a big, open space,” Remy gestures to the long, wide United Airlines terminal, “he has a need to walk around.”

Remy says they are preparing to travel to a family reunion in Colorado, for Richard’s mom’s birthday. “Our intention is to go. Everyone understands that it’s going to be hard [to fly,]” Remy says. “We have traveled before, when [Nicholas] was younger. It was easier then, because when he cried we could pick him up and move him into a private area to calm him down. But now he’s a teenager, and willful and strong, and it’s harder to work through what he may be feeling at the moment.”

“I’m a little stressed!” Remy adds, with a little laugh. “Thank God for this practice run!”

Wings for Autism really “opens doors for families to see an elderly parent they haven’t seen in years, or travel, or maybe even to go to Disney,” Durkin says. Although this is the program’s fourth year at BWI, nationally it represents the 100th “flight” for The Arc of the United States’ program. “We work with a lot of families who haven’t been able to travel before they do this,” Durkin says.

Jonathan Dean, BWI’s communications director, says families don’t have to wait until next year to practice the air-travel process in a “realistic, but relaxed setting,”

He invites families to visit BWI to try their own practice run anytime. “Families could do a similar experience on their own: See the facility, walk through the busy environment, and see how it goes,” Dean says.

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