Taking a trip on an airplane is stressful for anyone. Dragging luggage, standing in line for tickets, dealing with the ever-so-pleasant TSA agents, walking through funny machines, then waiting and more waiting before boarding an airplane that is crowded and noisy. And that’s before this giant tube is mysteriously projected into the sky.
Now imagine doing all of this with autism. Loud noises and bright lights can be tuned out by neurotypical children and adults. But how would you handle it these sensations were amplified?
In anticipation for the summer travel season, several organizations in Broward County organized Autism in Flight; a “dry run” to help children and their parents be better prepared at the airport. Organized by JetBlue Airlines, the Ft. Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and Broward County Schools (and probably about a hundred other people I am failing to mention), everyone went above and beyond to make these 50+ children feel comfortable at the airport.
The children went step-by-step from arriving at the airport to riding the plane. After stopping by the ticket agent and picking up their boarding pass, it was on to TSA. This leg of the trip gave me a bit of anxiety as I waited for one of the children to have a meltdown over taking their shoes off, or walking through the metal detector. But the agents were kind and patient. One nice woman even showed Jack how to push his bin on the conveyer belt and then watch the “x-ray” of his Minecraft backpack and all his electronic devices inside.
While waiting for about an hour to board the plane and snacking on lunch, every child had their head down playing with an iPad, cell phone or DS. Before you judge all the parents for giving their kids electronic devices, not one child had problems waiting. Boarding the plane was a piece of cake and the flight attendants treated these kids like rock stars. While we didn’t actually fly, the pilot drove the plane around on the tarmac and the trip was capped off with a water cannon salute from the local fire department.
Jack is a seasoned traveler having been on several plane trips, all on JetBlue. We haven’t tried other airlines with him, but after past experiences, we never will. Several years ago we booked a last minute trip to attend a funeral in Boston. Because this wasn’t planned weeks or months in advance, all 5 of our seats were in separate rows. We spoke to the ticket agent and explained that we were traveling with a 5 year old and a 6 year old with autism. We asked if there was anything they could do to have an adult with them. Without blinking they rearranged the plane so that all 5 of our seats were in 1 row together. This is a company that gets it. They didn’t make a scene or ask for a diagnosis letter from our doctor. They understood that in that moment we needed a little bit of help. Not pity or judgement, just help.
My hope for Autism in Flight is that not only were the children less nervous about traveling, but that the airport is better prepared to help put these children at ease.