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Wings for Autism helps families and kids learn to fly

(Photo courtesy of Wings For Autism)
LISTEN: Wings For Autism helps families with autistic children to fly

Airports can be stressful for anyone, but for people with autism the lines and crowds and security pat downs, not to mention the flight itself, can trigger anxiety, meltdowns or worse.

“Loud places, unfamiliar places, big groups of people all moving in different situations,” said Renton’s Keshia Tinnen, who has a 9-year-old autistic son named Steven.

“It’s really hard for him to be in situations like that,” she said. “It’s just really overwhelming for him.”

So Tinnen hasn’t flown with him for years. She says they haven’t taken trips she’s wanted to take to avoid the stress and anxiety.

“Not just trips, as in vacations, but trips like, do we really need to go to the store? I’ve put off moving, even. Almost every part of our life is dictated by autism,” she said.

But Tinnen plans to travel with Steven in the next year or two, so this Saturday they’re headed to Sea-Tac airport for the Wings For Autism event.

“Wings for Autism is a partnership between The Arc of King County, the Port of Seattle, Alaska Airlines, and TSA,” said Stacia Irons, program manager of Wings for Autism with Arc of King County. “It is an airport rehearsal specially designed for individuals with autism, their families, and aviation professionals. It’s really an airport rehearsal.”

“Families comes to the airport, they get to practice checking in, getting a boarding pass, going through TSA, riding the train and then they board the plane,” she said. “They taxi around the runway and they simulate takeoff and landing, which is amazing. That is one of the times that’s really stressful for our kids.”

Even though it’s a simulation, and they’re not flying anywhere, participants are experiencing the airport in its truest form. They’re going through security with other travelers so that the experience is exactly how it would be if they were actually traveling.

Wings for Autism

Mount Vernon’s Joy Caldwell has taken her 18-year-old daughter Jessica to a Wings for Autism event.

“For a long time I thought we’ll never go anywhere that requires flight or mass transportation,” Caldwell said. “I figured where ever we go would have to be by car. So it has really opened things up.”

Irons says the program provides this freedom for many families.

“Time and time again we’ll hear from families who drive from Seattle to Florida twice a year to see their family, to Texas,” she said. “And they come off the plane in tears because they can now take a plane. It really has opened the skies for families and that is huge.”

Once participants see how the process works and know what to expect, the real travel day is not as daunting.

Another aspect of the program is training airline staff, so they have the tools to help families.

“The captain of the flight this Saturday has a child with a disability and many of the flight crew members do as well,” said Alaska Airlines’ Ray Prentice. “So they start fighting to want to work this flight. People are saying, ‘We want it! We want it!'”

Recently, I was on a plane, waiting on the tarmac to takeoff, and a little boy was screaming and refused to sit in his seat. I heard impatient passengers mumbling about how the parents should control their child and if they were his parents they would make him sit down. Eventually, the little boy and his dad exited the plane. Come to find out later he was autistic.

Unfortunately, Caldwell and Tinnen know that sort of judgment all too well.

“Those moments where he isn’t able to calm down or control himself, he looks like a bad kid having a freakout,” Tinnen said. “People don’t understand that not all disabilities are visible.”

So to be on an airplane and have the support of the staff can mean the world.

“It’ll make you cry,” Tinnen said. “When your child’s having a meltdown and you’re in public. In that moment just having somebody smile at you, let alone help you through security. Just to smile or an acknowledgment that you’re not a terrible parent is wonderful and can completely turn your entire week around.”

Wings for Autism only holds two events at Sea-Tac Airport per year. Saturday’s event sold out in 30 minutes. Click here for more information on the next event, in February. You can register three months in advance.

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