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.
(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.
( 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.