Opening the World to Persons with Autism

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Rearing a child with autism brings challenges too many to mention. A particular sadness, recurring frequently, is the inability to travel with your child due to difficulties that occur in boarding airplanes. Many citizen without autism now avoid the flight lines and procedures, and drive, take the train, or just stay home. For young people with autism and their families, having to give up a vacation has become another restriction in their lives. Andrew Ryan in the May 15th edition of the Boston Globe, reports on Vacation dreams take flight. Logan Airport practice run aims to ease travel for autistic children.

“The Littlejohn family’s much-anticipated trip together to Walt Disney World last fall never made it past Logan International Airport. Henry was spooked by the glass elevator. Ambient airport noise — the unexpected beeps, the loudspeaker announcements — almost proved too much for a six-year-old with autism. ‘We thought we had him settled on the plane,’ said Erik Littlejohn. ‘But then a guy behind him opened his window shade’; Henry melted. He cried and kicked, and takeoff was delayed when his parents could not buckle his seat belt. The family made a wrenching decision: Mom and Henry got off the plane and went home to Holliston; Dad and Henry’s seven-year-old brother went on to Disney World.”

This family knew there had to be a better way. Now there is. Wings For Autism is a program pioneered at the very same Logan Airport. It is a preparation and training program for everyone involved in helping young people with autism get through the airport and have a successful experience on an airplane. Presently, there are 200 participants in this program with another 150 on the waiting list.

“A lot of these families have never flown before, because they are afraid. It’s a lot of money to spend on tickets and then find out at the airport you can’t go’; said Jennifer Robtoy, the organizer of the initiative and director of autism support at The Charles River Center for people with developmental disabilities. ‘A lot of families will be able to take a family vacation now.'”

During the program, the young people and their families as well as the transportation staff establish and practice boarding routines where the children can learn to cling to an established structure. There is also hands-on, in-the-airport training for security, airport personnel, pilots, and flight attendants. Participating families and children at the airport wear a multicolored pin with a puzzle piece in the center: the international symbol for autism.

Kudos to Wings For Autism, the Massachusetts Port Authority, and Boston’s Logan Airport for a wise and sensitive endeavor. We hope this new program can also be modified for other persons with special needs, many of whom avoid travel and the pleasure it brings as related to challenges in boarding at the airport.

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