Air travel can be stressful for even the most experienced road warriors. But it can be much tougher for families with a child on the autism spectrum who becomes unnerved by the lines and security procedures at the airport and the tight quarters and strange noises on an airplane.
For the Littlejohn family it was dreadful.
In 2010, they had plane tickets to fly from Boston to Orlando for a vacation at Walt Disney World. “My son Henry, then 6, has autism but had traveled well before. This time he was very anxious on the way to the airport. And by the time we got on the plane he was melting down; kicking and screaming,” said Susie Littlejohn.
Before the plane could take off, they had to make a decision: Her husband ended up going on to Orlando with their older son, Jack; Henry and his mom got off the plane and went home.
Littlejohn thought the air travel process might go smoother if children like Henry had a way to practice going to and through the airport and getting onto the airplane. She mentioned that idea to Jennifer Robtoy, the director of Autism Services at the Charles River Center in Needham, Mass, and Robtoy got in touch with Massport, which operates Boston Logan airport, to see if something could be worked out.
“Within an hour of sending an e-mail to Massport, I got a reply,” said Robtoy. And within six months Massport, TSA, the Charles River Center (which is a chapter of The Arc) and several airlines (including JetBlue, United and Delta Air Lines) had created Wings for Autism, now a regular event offering families with children on the autism spectrum a chance to go to the airport and get on an airplane during a low-stress, dry run.
“A lot of families aren’t sure if air travel is a possibility for them if they have a child with autism. But during this event they simulate everything as if you’re traveling,” said Littlejohn, whose family has attended all but one of the Wings for Autism events Boston Logan has hosted.
“You park, take the moving walkway from the garage, wait in line, show your ID, get boarding passes and make your way through security. Everyone has a boarding time and gets on a plane,” she said.
During the event, the airplane engines are kept running so kids can feel – and hear – what that is like. The planes don’t actually leave the ground, but when it’s time for “takeoff” the cabin door is closed and safety announcements are made. During the “flight,” beverages are served and there’s a snack service.
Kids are also invited to visit the pilots in the cockpit.
“We’ve found that some kids have issues walking down the jetway or when it is time to step on the plane,” said Brad Martin, director of customer service at Boston Logan.
For others it’s when they’re getting strapped into their seatbelts or going through the emergency drill with the flight attendants.
“We know that for some kids it’s just not doable,” said Martin, “But some kids are just fine with everything and then the family knows they can do this.”
Martin said Boston Logan’s Wings for Autism program not only helps kids and their families tackle some of air travel issues, it also teaches airport and airline employees, as well as TSA officers, about the challenges autism can place on traveling. “They learn what to look for and how to handle certain situations and it teaches them to be patient and to see how they can help,” he said.
And that attitude can rub off on other travelers.
“If other passengers see a staff member willing to give a hand when a child with autism is having a hard time at the airport, they may also be more accepting, aware and sympathetic,” said Littlejohn.
Autism now affects one in 88 children nationwide. So while the Wings for Autism program is a big success at Boston Logan airport, families traveling with a child who has mild to severe autism would like to find sensitive and trained staff at all airports.
That may happen.
The Autism Society of Minnesota participates in the Navigating Autism program at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and, thanks to a grant from Autism Speaks, The Arc has licensed the Wings for Autism program and will take it nationwide to more than 50 airports within the next three to five years.
Wings for Autism events are currently planned at the Detroit and Baltimore airports. JetBlue is hosting a program at the Burbank Bob Hope Airport in California on May 4 and another one at New York’s JFK International Airport this fall.
“Because of this program, there will be fewer wedding, graduations and other important family occasions missed,” said Greg Principato, president of Airport Council International – North America, “More people will experience more and more places. And one of the limits autism can place on so many good people will be removed.”
And what about Henry Littlejohn, the 6-year-old whose meltdown inspired the Wings for Autism program in the first place?
Now eight, he was able to get on the plane during the event held at Boston Logan Airport earlier this month.
“It took a lot of hard work and patience,” said his mom, Susie Littlejohn. “We’re getting there, but air travel isn’t an option for us right now. We’re just so thankful there’s an opportunity to practice.”
(My story, Flying with Autism, first appeared in April 2013 as my At the Airport column on USAToday.com)