Preparing to fly with kids with autism

The airport security line has become routine, if still stressful, for most travelers these days.

"Shoes and belts in a plastic bin!" TSA officers shout. "Laptops in a separate bin!" Lines snake through the terminal. Frustrated passengers anxiously check the time as they inch closer to the glass and metal X-ray scanners.

It can be tough for even an experienced traveler, but for those with developmental disabilities, including autism, the experience can be overwhelming.

That's why The Arc, a US organization devoted to assisting people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, sponsors a program for kids and their parents that recently took place in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for the second year.

The organizers of Wings for Autism designed the program to allow kids with autism to become familiar with airports, airport procedures, and the TSA ahead of family travel. Since 2011, 44 airports around the country have participated in the program, with the cooperation of various airlines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism affects one in 68 children and that about one in six children had a "developmental disability in 2006 to 2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism."

Sarah Bal, The Arc's public relations director, explained that the program is designed to acclimate children on all parts of the autism spectrum to airport procedures, sounds, and chaos. In Atlanta, the need becomes clear as families participating in Wings for Autism exit the airport train to Terminal E as hundreds criss-cross the halls, making their way to escalators and elevators.

Bal said the program has helped 2,000 families since it began six years ago at the Charles River Center in Needham, Massachusetts. The program takes families through the experiences of entering the airport, getting boarding passes, going through security and boarding a plane.

Daniel Williams is 10 years old, plays baseball, loves airplanes, and lives with autism. He recites Boeing models, the amount of fuel the 777 can carry, and can't wait to get aboard the aircraft waiting at the end of the jetway.

Routine is everything, his mother Daria Williams explained. Each night, he lays out his clothes, then in the morning he wakes up, has his breakfast with his brothers, and rides the bus to school with his little brother. Airport security, like any other disruption to the schedule, can cause problems. Daria said this experience is invaluable and looks forward to summer travel because of it.

Turning the travel date into an event marked on the calendar is one tip that Captain Erich Ries offered the families, speaking aboard the Airbus A330 they used. Ries, a Delta captain, flies a Boeing 717, and loves to travel with his 10-year-old son, Drew, who also has autism.

Among Ries' tips: Make sure the child has a bag packed with "that little taste of home," and rehearse procedures for the travel day in advance to minimize surprises.

A few rows away from Ries, 10-year-old Daniel buckles his seatbelt, shows his little brother how to do the same, and begins adjusting the window shade. "The wing is so big," he told family surrounding him.

Nearby, 5-year-old Nathaniel Underwood is preparing for his family's June trip to Hartford, Connecticut, where his mother, Sonya Underwood, will continue her education as an airplane engine mechanic.

Sandy Rice spent the morning holding children's hands, answering parents' questions, and keeping much of the event flowing smoothly. She works for the TSA, knows airport procedures and has an air of calm authority.

Her 20-year-old son has autism and is nonverbal. Rice and has worked with "Wings for Autism" since 2016. She knows what many parents with kids with autism have experienced, and what many of these parents will experience. She emphasized that parents use the TSA Cares program, in which a TSA officers meets a traveling family and walks them from the airport's front doors to the terminal gate, to help make air travel as easy as possible.

Flight attendants welcome the participants aboard the plane, as they would during a normal flight. The children board, find seats, and listen to safety announcements. The sounds of the plane echo throughout the cabin: the loudspeaker, the air conditioners and the whirring motors. The plane never moves.

Two of the last children off the plane are Daniel Williams and Nathaniel Underwood. Nathaniel's mother mentioned what a good experience it was -- Nathaniel was fascinated with the interactive screen on the seat in front of him -- his.

Both boys were interested in the high-tech cockpit. Daniel's day at the airport reinforced his love of planes and his dream of becoming an airline pilot. His mother said that while this experience has made her less anxious about travel, it has also given her son more inspiration.

"This will drive him ... he'll remember this forever," she said.

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