As we are experiencing bitter cold temperatures and numerous snow days this winter, I find myself counting down the days until spring and dreaming of a warm getaway. For individuals with autism, traveling using public transportation can be difficult and overwhelming. Specifically, traveling via airports requires an individual to exhibit several skills that may need to be taught to individuals with autism. These skills include:

  • walking with a caregiver through crowded places
  • waiting patiently in a long line (with many people around you)
  • holding onto your belongings
  • using a crowded public restroom
  • tolerating sitting in a seat for extended periods of time (e.g., during the flight).

Additionally, there are unpredictable changes to schedules that may occur throughout the process of traveling through an airport (e.g., changes in the gate number, delays in departure time). Unpredictable changes to schedules and routines are typically very difficult for individuals with autism and may evoke anxiety and or inappropriate behaviors when they occur.

For parents, all theses factors can produce anxiety and could be reasons for avoiding travel all together. Not being able to travel via airports can restrict the number of activities and vacations that families would like to do. This could mean not being able to take their children to fun vacations (e.g., Disney World, not being able to visit relatives that live far away, or not being able travel at all as a family).

One resource available to parents and their children, for traveling on an airplane, is the Wings for Autism program. Wings for Autism is a program that originated at a local chapter of the Arc in Massachusetts. Their mission was to alleviate the stress of traveling and or flying with a family member with autism or other intellectual/development disabilities.  The main goal of Wings for Autism is to provide the family and individual with a disability the opportunity to practice entering the airport, obtaining a boarding pass, going through security and boarding a plane.

I recently had the privilege of attending the Wings for Autism event at the Baltimore Washington International Airport, with a client firsthand. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived to BWI airport and walked over to the Southwest Airlines concourse. I was immediately impressed with the set up and organization of the event. Every Southwest employee was wearing bright orange Wings for Autism t-shirt and they were extremely kind and helpful to all the families and their children attending the event. Employees were stationed around every corner to ensure that kids and their families knew exactly where to go next. From the beginning of the check-in process to boarding the plane, every step was planned out and autism-friendly. There were so many opportunities for the kids to practice traveling throughout the airport and for generalization of the socially-appropriate skills in the community. These skills included waiting in long lines, carrying bags through long terminals, identifying adults that can help, asking questions to find out information, staying with your family when it gets crowded, locating the correct gate that matches the boarding pass, and waiting for your zone or number to be called prior to boarding.

The event lasted about three hours and here is how it played out:

  1. First we waited in line to check-in at the check-in kiosk, tell the attendant your name and destination, receive your boarding passes,
  2. walk over to the security lines, wait in line to be screened by TSA security,
  3. gather your belongings and walk down the correct terminal toward the gate,
  4. identify the correct gate and wait for your seat zone to be called,
  5. board the plane by zone,
  6. sit on the airplane for an hour while the flight attendants and pilot explain the processes of what to expect during flights (e.g., how to buckle seat belt, where the exits were, what turbulence is),
  7. de-board the airplane,
  8. walk to baggage claim, and
  9. gather your checked baggage.

Every little detail about what to expect when flying was covered during this event and the event went smoothly. There were about 30-40 families with their kids, and the kids ranged from 2-3 year olds to kids in their teens/early adulthood. I could not have been more impressed with how accommodating the Southwest Airlines employees were and I could tell that a lot of families were satisfied with their experience. I would absolutely recommend for any family that is interested in getting their child an experience with flying and airports to attend this event in the future.

My client that attended this event ended up flying for real for the first time in his life in early January. He had a safe and successful travel going to his destination and coming back to Baltimore. With the experience he gained from Wings for Autism, this made traveling much easier and predictable for not only the child but the entire family. A trip to the airport can be chaotic, even for the most patient of us, but knowing what to expect can help alleviate some of the stress that can go along with traveling.

If you don’t have time to sign up for a program such as Wings for Autism before you travel, there are still many ways that you can help prepare your child for your upcoming trip. There are many situations that you will not be able to control (e.g., delayed flights or the baby crying in the seat behind you) but by preparing for the unexpected you can try to lessen the bumps that you may encounter. Some things to consider before you travel:

  • Have you child’s favorite item present
  • Have your child’s favorite snacks
  • Have new toys or activities that your child has not seen before
  • Plan for no WIFI – pre-download your child’s favorite shows or movies on your device
  • Make sure you have some low tech options available as well
  • Make sure your device is fully charged or bring a portable cordless charger
  • Bring noise cancelling headphones
  • Have paper and a pen so you can provide your child with a visual for any changes to the travel plan
  • Check in with the airline to see if there are any services that they offer
  • Breathe – the calmer your child sees you the easier the situation will be for them

You will never be able to predict every situation that you are going to encounter; however, taking time to plan for the unexpected can help you feel more confident in the traveling process. As the snow melts away, start planning, and get ready for take off! Happy travels!

By Josh Firestone

For more information about The Shafer Center contact 410-517-1113 or [email protected]