The first flight I remember taking was when I was five, and my parents herded me and my siblings (numbering four kids in total) onto an Eastern Airlines jet to fly down to Florida. This was, of course, back in the days before we had the kind of security we now have at airports. Where you could meet your friends at the gate when their flight arrived, even without a ticket. Where you got real food on aircraft with real utensils and plates, when smoking was permitted on board…
Okay, yes, we’ve established that I’m old. And that a lot’s changed since I was a kid.
The last time the Monster flew, though… he was very little, perhaps around a year or two old, and either way well before the diagnosis. Since then, he’s become a lot more rigid about traveling. Meltdowns have become something we have to worry about… and something that I’m not generally willing to subject other people to, especially given many recent news stories about flights with children-in-meltdown… and so we’ve done very little traveling as a family.
Which is a shame, because there’re a lot of interesting things to see that are out of easy driving distance from our home.
Children – and adults, from my understanding – with Autism deal better with situations when they can practice them to become familiar with what to expect. (Not that the Monster isn’t usually fairly good about change, but.) The real issue is that there generally aren’t a lot of ways to practice going to the airport in a post-9/11 world – you can’t do most of the process anymore without being a ticketed passenger.
We were very fortunate, therefore, to get a slot this weekend at a program run by the Arc Baltimore, offered by BWI Airport, the Transportation Security Administration, Southwest Airlines and AirMall called “Wings for Autism”. (For those of you who follow my Instagram or Twitter feeds, you’ve already seen the pictures.) It’s a great program that basically lets you run through the process of the day… save for the “taking off, flying around and landing” parts.
(Now, before I start, a few things. First, the usual – I was not compensated in any way for writing about this – Wings for Autism is a free program. And second… the Arc did a fabulous job of getting us ready, with sending along a detailed schedule and a quick social story to prep the participant for the trip.)
The Monster and I arrived at the airport around noonish. I’d originally intended to park in the hourly lot, adjacent to the terminal, but it occurred to me that if we were really going to simulate a trip, that was kind of stupid. It’s convenient to park there, in walking distance, but the reality of the situation is that we tend to park off-site and ride a shuttle… so we parked at the Express Parking about 3 minutes away, and took a shuttle-bus over to the departure terminal with our empty suitcase. Once there, it was very easy to find the gathering area for the group, with a load of volunteers wandering around in distinctive “Wings for Autism” t-shirts. We had an hour to sit and chill and get snacks, which for the Monster mostly constituted saying “EAT!” at me at intervals, and my reminding him gently that he knew where the donut holes were. (Which is another good thing on his end, because he can be trusted to meander the twenty feet and get one-and-only-one donut hole without touching all the others, and then come back.)
Around one o’clock, we got in line at the ticket counter to start the process of simulating the flight. Southwest Airlines had arranged for five or so agents to be available to check our empty bags and give out “boarding passes” (non-passenger escort passes to get through security), which had the effect of creating a believable line for us to wait in for a little bit. By this time, I’d given the Monster his iPad to help make it easier for him to wait, and he was reasonably good about it.
From there, we wandered over to the TSA checkpoint by Terminal C to a dedicated line, where we went through the normal process. This was a wonderful opportunity for me, as a parent, to ask questions that I had about traveling with the kids (as mentioned, we’ve not traveled with them by air in years). No, children 12 and under don’t have to remove their shoes. No, children under the age of 18 don’t need photo ID for traveling domestically (though I still felt a bit like I should have had an authorization letter from my wife since I was “traveling” alone with the child 😉 ). I was surprised that they diverted us through the metal detector instead of going through the backscatter machine – I’d brought his headphones, just in case, due to the noise – and it was relatively quick and painless.
We then walked down to the gate where a Southwest jet was waiting at the end of the jetway. After some perfunctory speeches by folks from the airport and from the Arc, we were called to board the plane in perfectly-normal Southwest fashion, and walked down the jetway to get on the aircraft. The flight crew was a lot of fun, despite sticking closer to script than a lot of the Southwest flights I’ve been on (and for good reason!), with copious explanations for what would normally happen, if the flight happened to be actually going through the motions. After a half-hour, which included the normal announcements for all phases of the flight, we ‘returned’ to the terminal and deplaned to walk downstairs to get our bags from the baggage carousel.
So what are my impressions?
I think the Monster could handle a flight at this point. I’d not want to do it without fully charged electronics to have something to distract him with, but with enough leeway built into the schedule to deal with delays and with creative scheduling to avoid rush hours at the airport, I think he’s capable of getting through an airplane trip. The only question I’d still have would be the issue of the sounds and pressure on a real airplane ride, but we won’t know that until we actually take a trip.
That there is an opportunity to “test-drive” a plane ride, though, is a major boon. I know that there are other groups and airlines in the US that run similar programs, and I’d highly recommend to other parents of children on the spectrum to seek these opportunities out. If fear of how your family member with Autism would respond is what’s keeping you from doing more “normal family things”, this kind of an experience might tell you if your concerns are justified, or help you to start working through the problem spots.