An airport “rehearsal,” designed specifically for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, is expected to attract nearly 100 participants to Mobile Regional Airport Saturday, Feb. 20.
“The biggest thing I’ve heard is some parents (of autistic children) avoiding air travel because they just don’t know what’s going to happen, so they avoid it completely and drive everywhere. This is something we can do to help, and I’m really excited about it,” said Roger Wehner, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority.
Started by the Charles River Center, a local chapter of The Arc in Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Port Authority, Wings for Autism is designed to alleviate some of the stress that families who have a child with autism experience when traveling by air. The program provides families with the opportunity to practice entering the airport, obtain boarding passes, go through security and board a plane.
The Mobile effort represents a partnership between The Arc of Clarke County, Mobile Arc, Mobile Regional Airport, the Autism Society of Alabama, the Transportation Security Administration, the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism and American Airlines and its regional partners Envoy Air and PSA Airlines.
In addition to the children and family members assisted by the dry-run, Wings for Autism also gives airport, airline, TSA professionals and other personnel the opportunity to observe, interact and deliver their services in a structured, learning environment.
Upon arrival, event attendees will check in to receive their boarding pass, go through security and be greeted at the gate prior to boarding the plane.
“These kids will literally come in with their luggage, get issued tickets, go through TSA and have their own gate and plane. Then we’ll be able to take them out, taxi them around and run up the engines, so they actually get a feel for the noise and the motion. It really is an amazing program,” Wehner said. “We’ve tried to think of everything along the lines of sensory overload that could arise in this setting and pre-expose them to it. It’s just such a rewarding and beneficial program and …, together, we hope to make Wings for Autism realistic and valuable to all involved.”
Angel Loewen, community and program coordinator for the Autism Society of Alabama, said the true magnitude of the event extends far beyond familiarity with the nuts-and-bolts of air travel.
“Not only do we want to bring awareness of autism, we really want to promote acceptance,” Loewen said. “Events like Wings for Autism help children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder by allowing them to experience a new activity, while assisting airport staff in learning how to be better prepared to serve families affected by ASD when they travel.”
Gail Linkins, TSA federal security director for the state of Alabama, said the agency’s support specialists “understand that there is a lot for these young travelers to experience and absorb while traveling through an airport.”
“It is really satisfying to be able to assist these families through the process, and TSA is proud to partner with this program at airports nationwide,” Linkins said.
Jeff Zoghby, Mobile Arc executive director, said the “extraordinary opportunity” gives participating families the step-by-step experience of air travel, allowing them to “troubleshoot any issues that arise and decide if flying is right for them.”
“At the same time, airline staff members gain experience in how to help make this process easier for these families. This collaborative effort helps us realize our goal of greater inclusion and acceptance of people with developmental disabilities in our community,” Zoghby said.
Meanwhile, Katie Clark, resource development coordinator for The Arc of Clarke County, called Wings for Autism an “opportunity for exposure, experience and education to our members.”
“We hope that this event will create wonderful memories, new friendships and relationships between the organizations that will lead to future collaborations,” Clark said.