Learn To Fly: Helping Autistic Children with Air Travel

Air travel can be challenging for children. There are big crowds, confusing noises and tight spaces. What's daunting for many children can be downright intimidating, even terrifying, for children with autism. In Philadelphia, parents now have a unique opportunity to prepare their autistic children before a trip by air.

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Why Air Travel and Autism Don't Mix

One in 100 children are diagnosed with autism each year. For many families with an autistic child, the prospect of travel, especially air travel, brings on apprehension. This is because both the airport and airplane experiences are full of elements that can be difficult for children with autism.

First of all, autistic children may struggle with new or unexpected things; they do best with order and familiarity. As anyone who has been stuck in an airport can attest, air travel is rampant with repeated delays, rushes to make connections and generally chaotic time management.

Airports and airplanes are also full of loud noises, crowded spaces, long tunnels and tedious waits in lines. While no one enjoys these things, they put particular stress on children with autism. These children may struggle to remain calm, have trouble breathing and begin to panic. When a family has a bad air travel experience with an autistic child, they may forego future trips for fear of the stress it can cause.

The Philadelphia Model

One bad experience is exactly what happened to a Catanese family from outside of Philadelphia. Young Gena was planning to pre-board a flight home from Florida with her parents and sisters. Yet she was told that she could only pre-board with one parent. This caused Gena to become agitated and anxious, going so far as to bite her parents. The family had to abandon plans to make that flight.

They then contacted Wendy Ross, a developmental physician. Ross was inspired to start a program at Philadelphia International Airport for children like Gena. Now, families can embark on practice trips that include every aspect of air travel, from checking bags and getting boarding passes to boarding the plane and hearing the pilot's announcements about the trip. This all happens without a plane ever leaving the gate.

The program enables autistic children to get comfortable with the entire air travel experience. They can get familiar with the airport, going through security and the various lights and noises they're likely to encounter. At the end of the trail run, they receive a pin with wings from the airport.

Benefits Beyond the Children

The Philadelphia program is a large-scale collaboration involving autism experts, the Philadelphia airport, the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration, the Gray Center and participating airlines, which thus far have included Southwest, United, US Airways and Frontier.

While the program helps families with autistic children, it also benefits airport and airline staff. Last spring, Ross led a training of 130 airport and airline employees on autism. This was a chance to help the staff understand the unique needs of children with autism. They learned about how not every child with autism is the same and, therefore, the challenges these children face may vary widely.

Ross has larger aspirations that extend beyond Philadelphia. She hopes to encourage more airports throughout the country to institute similar programs. If she succeeds, more families with autistic children may feel comfortable and confident embarking on trips by air.

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