A Beginner’s Guide to Traveling through Hartsfield Jackson International Aiport.

On April 14, 2017, I attended my second “Wings for Autism” annual event in order to volunteer along with findings ways to help improve the rehearsals.   Whereas I signed up to get an overview of the whole process last year,  I signed up to volunteer this time around.    While the last meeting was 12 months earlier, I was more determined than ever to meet the right people in order to see this program get off the ground by way of major expansion.   Meanwhile, I managed to connect with an organization who not only works for Delta Airlines but also has a son with mild autism as well.  The pilot, who is the director and I both discussed that I was welcome to join the regularly monthly two-hour tours along with submitting my ideas written in my last blogs in bullet-pointed lists.   Correspondingly, I have followed suit.  Although I have provided Delta with a very expensive and time-consuming bottom-up way of expanding the program, I came to the complete realization that much observation from every angle needs to be taken.    For the time being, there are steps that families can take while inside Hartsfield Jackson whether in rehearsal or in on an official travel date.

 

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Wings for Autism Rehearsal Day 2017

With Hartsfield Jackson International being one of the busiest airports in the world,  I have simply learned that being in this airport for long periods can be very taxing.   Yet, there are many steps that one can take to keep the stress levels down.

First and foremost, it is recommended that one on the spectrum gets proper amounts of sleep the night before.   As someone who is on the spectrum and has flown a fair amount, I find that getting to bed early in order to get a good night sleep will help me function better in an extremely stressful environment.

The second recommendation for traveling and rehearsals is to eat a healthy breakfast that which can also help manage stress.  Once again, I have learned that I function better when I have had a meal with lots of protein before I travel.   On the other hand, it might be helpful to eliminate the sugar as much as possible as it can weaken the immune system for a long period of time.  This is especially since the airport has people from all walks of life coming from different corners of the US and the world for that matter.

A third recommendation is since Hartsfield Jackson is one of the busiest in air travels,  it’s going to often be crowded.   Since passengers often head from the main terminals to catch their flight, most will use the plane train, which can be crowded.  Yet, there is a second option that I highly recommend to passengers travelings with loved on the spectrum.   On the same level that one can catch the plane train,  one can use the tunnels which have regular and moving walkways.   Upon making observations after yesterday’s tour,  I took the plane train from concourse F to Concourse E so that I could walk through the tunnels.   Though an auto recording about using the moving walkways, it was otherwise quiet and less stressful.  What’s more is that individuals can avoid dealing with the flickering of the fluorescent lighting by using sunglasses and glasses with colored lenses if that is a problem.  Meanwhile, if the noise in the loudspeaker is a bother, using headphones and earplugs may help reduce stress as well.

 

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Delta Sign in Concourse E

 

 

A fifth recommendation that could help reduce stress levels for families and individuals would be to get to the airport as early as possible.  That way, an individual could become acclimated to the hustle and bustle of the airport.  All the way, finding a section of gates that are being unoccupied for a few hours between usages of departures and arrivals which can make the environment seem friendlier for one who struggles with lots of stimulation and sensory overload.   In the middle of the wait, the loved one could watch a movie on a tablet or laptop, play with a fidget spinner. play games,  eat a meal, stimulate or even watch airplanes take off.

Last but not least, Hartsfield Jackson Airport has a first of its kind sensory room in concourse F.  Though there are strict procedures to get inside this room, a family could get ahold of the airport in advance to let them know that they need the sensory room for a few hours. Though this room has mats, a bubble machine, and a ball pit,  I would recommend that each family brings a few stress balls, fidgets, and weighted blankets so their loved ones can benefit from the usage of this room.   That way, officials at the airport will be able to see the greater need and hopefully create and open other sensory rooms in each concourse being that Hartsfield Jackson is so large.  Beyond that, the world’s business airport.

While I am starting to share my input with family members as we speak, I realize that much more work needs to be done in order to help create a safer and more familiar environment for people with autism.   Though these tours only meet once a month, I recognize that we have not only changing the lives of others but also reshaping the way traveling has been done for many years.  What’s more is that these changes aren’t just happening in the airport but outside of them as well.

 

Wings for Autism

On April 12, 2016, I had the opportunity to attend a very memorable event at the Atlanta Hartsfield -Jackson International Airport which is one of the busiest in the world next to O’Hare in Chicago.   The invitation was given by a former supervisor who had hired me to work at the Center for Leadership in Disability (CLD) at Georgia State University where I am currently employed.

Wings for Autism, 4

(Delta Airline Pilot during Press Conference).

At any rate, this affair was better known as “Wings for Autism,”  which is a collaboration of major airlines and international airports who reach out to families and their loved ones who live with autism.   By definition, the program offers these families relief by providing an opportunity to help these individuals practice traveling by way of flight.  Being that the surroundings of an airport and the process of boarding a plane can be stressful and scary it has been much harder to fly with their children.   What this new and unique program offers are a monthly practice run where these families will be allowed to practice getting their boarding passes, going through security, and boarding the plane.

Miyah First Class

( Me aboard a Delta Boeing 777 in business class)

On March March 10, 2016, I had first received the invitation by way of e-mail.  Being that I share a love for airports, flying, traveling and Delta Airlines, this was an offer that I could absolutely not refuse.  Though I don’t have any children of my own and being that I live on the spectrum myself,  making an observation was logical.   Based on those observations, I would be able to come to a conclusion and be able to give my input.  So here is the story of how the process works.

It was around 9:30 in the morning when we met up  and began receiving our special boarding passes in the international terminal.   Rather than replicas of what a boarding pass would normally look like, we received special letters from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  While waiting a solo violinist who played various tunes from classical to modern alternative music. All the while it was my turn to receive my boarding pass but had to wait since the staff accidentally misplaced mine.  When I did receive it, I was directed to a security checkpoint where the usual routine of taking off my shoes and passing my bag through the metal special metal detector.  Thought I made it through security, sadly my purse was checked only to find that I had two plastic bottles containing water which I had forgotten was prohibited since 2006.    Yet, this did not bother to phase me one bit even though I could have had a meltdown right there and then. Rather I laughed it off and was directed to take a descent to two escalator fights to a the “Plane Train.”  Upon arriving and waiting for the airport train, I was greeted by a TSA officer who told me that she had a nineteen year old child with severe autism who could not speak.   She also instructed to take the train to concourse E where there would be a reception and small press conference with local media officials.   Upon arriving at concourse E, I headed straight away to the reception where I engaged in a short conversation with one of the airline pilots who helped with the festivities.   It was during that conversation that I had geeked out with her on the type of aircraft that we would be boarding later that day.   As it turned out, our Boeing class was a 777, which often flies long trips to Africa or Japan.

In any manner, the reception soon ended when we were asked to sit at the nearest gate where the short press conference to place.  It was inside this conference that several officials from Delta and from the airport had a chance to briefly share their stories about raising children with autism and their struggles in flying with them.  As a listened, I was intrigued and touched by each story as I was not only understood but accepted by people who work in a hectic world where people hardly stop to acknowledge autism.  Rather they are rushing to get you through security,  take a break from acutely long flights to sleep and eat, to making sure everyone boards according to TSA procedures.  Seeing the opposite was almost like slowing down enough to smell the roses for the autism community.

It was soon after that it was time to board the plane for our feign stimulated flight where the customer service agents announced the time and number of our flight.  Rather than giving each guest a row and a seat number,  everyone was allowed to board all at once.   While we were allowed to pick our own seats, there was a requirement to sit in the middle of the plane where the pilot had us fasten our seat belts and set our cell phones to”Airplane mode.”  It was shortly after that the pilot spoke over the PA system about instructions in helping their loved ones learn to fly which I found some areas to be helpful such as booking your airline tickets as early as possible.  On the other hand, I observed that the pilot did not hand over the PA to the flight attendants to give a practice run about  before and aircraft departs the ground.  This is something that greatly disturbed me because I feel that when flying, these individuals on the spectrum need to be taught the importance of those things in order to prepare for an emergency.  Instead, we were allowed to see what the environment of an aircraft looks like, hear from the pilot as well as give a self-guided tour from the back of the cockpit.

A second thing that caught my attention was a young man who had a meltdown right in front of me. This was by way of throwing a tantrum, crying and feeling impatient.  Why? He hated the idea of sitting still and was frustrated because he wanted to get off and get McDonald’s.  Since our plane was sitting at the gate, the staff were nice enough to get him off the plane and grab lunch.  My feeling on the matter is that one cannot just get off a plane and grab whatever they want to eat any told they want because they simply crave it.  Rather it’s best to find McDonald’s at an airport as it’s often widely available and stock up on their child’s favorites to carry onto the plane to enjoy during the flight.  I also feel that a first flight should be shorter which ranges from one to two hours with the individual sitting on an outside seat where they could get out and go for a walk.   All the while have them participate in frequent practice days at their local airport before hand so the airport and the airplane scenario become familiar.   All the while feel the most comfortable with flying.

Now in conclusion to being a part of “Wings for Autism” and its celebration, I will give a review.  First and foremost I believe that it is a groundbreaking program that will benefit many individuals alike and that will hopefully catch the eye of other venues and companies to help these individuals feel comfortable in society.   On the other hand, I do feel that the “Wings for Autism” have a lot of tweaking to undergo in the assistance to successful travels.  For one thing, these kids need to be taught about assigned seats and waiting their turn at the gate.  That is unless their parents make arrangements with the airline ahead of time to allow early boarding time before everyone else.   Secondly, we all know that traveling isn’t going to be perfect all the time and that means a flight to be delayed or canceled due to things like weather.  People with autism like routine and when a routine is interrupted that is when you have meltdowns and panic attacks.  My feeling is that the organizations and the airlines need to be teaching them about delays and cancellations so each family can have a backup plan.   Being that I am interested and intrigued at what the world of traveling is doing, I long to be more involved in seeing that these things happen.