Boston Airport Takes Fear out of Flying for Children with Autism
There aren’t many times in life when you get a dress rehearsal, especially for families of children with special needs. For children with Autism, in particular, practice and preparation for novel situations (places, people, environments, schedule changes) is a necessary part of life. Both in and outside of speech therapy, children with Autism regularly struggle with transitions, change in routine or surprising events; without proper preparation these children often have behavioral and communication breakdowns resulting in challenges for the whole family. Recognizing the specific difficulty of flying, Boston’s Logan Airport in collaboration with the Charles River Center and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have taken a huge step towards helping children with Autism conquer the airport through their program, Wings for Autism.
Wings for Autism offers day-long practice events where children and families can do a dry run through the entire process- from security to check in, boarding and buckling up – children can experience virtually all parts of a flight without ever leaving the ground. Airline staff even offer a tour of the cockpit. The event, held at Logan Airport in Boston, MA began three years ago and has taken off (literally) with the help of Jet Blue Airlines who generously donates their time, staff and aircraft for the event. For children that are having issues with the various parts of the simulation there are behavioral specialists. The event is free to families though they must sign up in advance due to limited space.
Not only do children and families benefit from the program, but airline personal learn how to best interact with children on the Autism Spectrum. From screeners to pilots and flight attendants, training in communication with special populations is key. After the event, children and families can wear special stickers during regular travel time with the “Wings for Autism” logo on their apparel to indicate their needs to TSA and airport staff discretely. Staff are trained to recognize these stickers and can appropriately accommodate children and families.
Spreading the Program’s Reach:
Since the event began its popularity has skyrocketed and now, thanks to a grant from Autism Speaks, Wings for Autism will expand to four other airports in order to reach more families across the country. The grant will also include funding for production of a training video to provide TSA with awareness of the communication skills needed to accommodate children with special needs.
Preparing for the Day:
Wheather your family is attending the Wings for Autism event or a real trip to the airport, there are a few key things you should do to help your child prepare, including creating a social story:
- List all the steps your family will take, from getting out the door to landing and arriving at your destination.
- Create visuals using Google images, YouTube or Boardmaker to depict each step in the sequence. Try using YouTube for videos of specific events that are hard to depict in a single picture. Include only as much information as your child can handle. That means each page of the story should not be too overwhelming or include too much information.
- Preview the story with your child weeks and days before the event.
- Create a place on the story where each step can be “crossed off” to keep track during the day and help the child visualize their progress
- During the day, remind your child of each step as they go through the airport and reference the story. Don’t’ forget to checkoff each step.
- Include rewards along the way to keep your child motivated
- Consider bringing toys and videos for times of “waiting” that can help occupy or distract
- Remember that on the airplane, electronics need to be turned off for a portion of the flight so don’t forget non-electronic options too.
The next event is in April of 2013. To register your family visit the Charles River Center Website.