Autistic Children Take Flight with “Wings for Autism”

WingsforAutismlogoFor many families, the holiday season means it’s time to pack up the bags and head to the airport. Traveling to visit family and friends, or maybe taking a trip to a sunny vacation getaway or skiing adventure, is a great way to spend a holiday vacation. However, families with an autistic child may face a different kind of adventure, one that could lead to a not-so-happy holiday.

The airport can be an intimidating place for anyone, but for those with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD,) it may be even more difficult. An airport’s size, the lights, sounds, and crowds rushing here and there can be overwhelming for anyone, but is especially the case when it comes to those with the sensory stimulation sensitivity that comes with many ASDs. The fear that their child may react badly to all the sensory input at an airport or during a flight prevents many parents from planning family trips.

There is, however, a program sponsored by The Arc, the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, that addresses these concerns and provides an opportunity to overcame these concerns. The national initiative called “Wings for Autism®” offers autistic children and their families a chance to learn about airports, planes, and the experience of air travel, all without leaving the ground, in an effort to ease the stress of the high-energy environment.

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Wings for Autism®: Practice Makes Perfect

The Wings for Autism® program provides families with the opportunity to rehearse for their upcoming trip or potential future flight.

  • Participants get a chance to practice entering the airport, obtaining boarding passes, going through a security check, boarding a plane, and settling into their seats in preparation for takeoff. They may even get an opportunity to visit the cockpit and speak with the Captain and flight crew.
  • Flight attendants welcome them on board and go through their standard safety procedures, showing the kids how to use their seat-belts, and what to do if their oxygen masks deploy.
  • The jet’s engines idle as the young passengers board, as they do on a real flight, giving them an opportunity to get the feel of the plane’s vibrations. The plane then pulls away from the gate and taxis around the airfield for about 30 minutes to give them the sense of movement on board.

By creating this sense of familiarity, the children’s fear of the unknown, and the stress related to air travel, are reduced to levels they can handle. After their experience, many of the children express their desire and anticipation for their first real plane trip.

Wings for Autism® also gives airport, airline, Transportation Security Administration professionals and other personnel the opportunity to observe, interact and deliver their services in a structured, learning environment.

Wings for Autism® programs have been held in major airports across the country, including Boston (#24 in population), Philadelphia (5), Milwaukee (31), Minneapolis (46), New York (1), Detroit (18), Phoenix (6), Atlanta (39), Washington D.C. (22), Seattle (20), and others, but not in Indianapolis. (More on that later.) The events have been run in cooperation with a number of leading airlines, including Southwest, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, and Delta.

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Wings for Autism® in Action

In this video provided by the Port of Seattle, Arc of King County, Seattle Tacoma International Airport & Alaska Airlines joined together to host a “Wings for Autism” program aimed at giving families a test-run at air travel. The four-hour program is designed to help make that process a little easier, allowing the more than 40 families that participated the opportunity to experience all the activities of a regular flight, from buckling their seat belts, listening to the flight attendant safety briefing, pushing back, taxiing around the airport and exiting the aircraft upon returning to the gate.

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Unfortunately, Indianapolis, the 14th largest population center in the country, does not yet have a Wings for Autism® program. With a population of over 820,000, 25% of whom are under the age of 18, we (conservatively) estimate that between 3,000 and 4,500 autistic children and their families in the Indy area could benefit from the program. [NOTE: A pilot project, Starting Our Adventure Right (SOAR) Program, which was based on the Wings for Autism® program, was tested in 2013 at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, but it never made its way north to Indy.]

While it’s probably too late for this holiday season, if you would like to see Wings for Autism® come to Central Indiana, you should visit The Arc of Indiana website and request that they bring the Wings for Autism® program to the Indianapolis International Airport. Or contact them at:
The Arc of Indiana
107 N. Pennsylvania St.
Suite 800
Indianapolis, IN 46204
Phone: 317-977-2375
Toll Free: 800-382-9100
Fax: 317-977-2385

And get involved! This won’t happen by itself, but with the support and cooperation of ASD families across Central Indiana, perhaps 2016 will see yours in a new, exciting location for the holidays. As has been proven across the country, airports and airlines have been willing and eager to support these efforts. (And why not if it increases the number of people that will fly?) It shouldn’t take more than a few well-placed phone calls and emails, and some organization skills, to bring this great program to our great city.

For more information, read our article, “The Arc of Indiana: Services and Advocacy for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.”

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