There have been many stories in recent years about families getting kicked off flights, and many of these families include children with Special Needs.
Kids with Autism have difficulties with an overload of the senses - sights, sounds, smells. Imagine that the individual smells of all of those people on the plane hitting your nose all at once. (I have problems with this as well; I usually get seated next to someone who has doused themselves in perfume!) Imagine the man faces of security, flight attendants, other passengers all flashing by you at a rapid pace. Imagine the sounds of the flight attendants making an announcement over the loudspeaker, the noise of the crowds, the beeps of the metal detectors bombarding your ears. Kids with Autism take all of this in at once, and have no filter to make sense of it all.
And the whole airport and flying experience may be out of their regular routine. No school, away from home , perhaps trying something new for the first time, it can certainly set off kids with Autism, and they sometimes do not know how to channel this anxiety and stress, causing meltdowns.
Being a parent of a child with Autism myself, I understand the anxiousness parents of children with Special Needs feel as they contemplate traveling. "We would love to take a trip, but I don't know how he/she would do on the flights? What if something sets him/her off getting through security? Getting on the plane? What if we get kicked off the flight?"
Some parents won't even take a vacation, because of all of these fears. Which is so sad, because these are the families that need a vacation the most.
A local agency in Rochester, New York that services families with Special Needs, the ARC of Monroe County, offers a wonderful program that introduces the experience of going through security at the airport and boarding an airplane. Since I serve many families with Autism at my travel agency, Magical Storybook Travels, I recently attended the "ROC Your Flight" event at the Rochester International Airport. I brought along my son, Emerson, as a guinea pig, so that I could document the experience for this article.
My son, Emerson, has Sensory Processing Disorder and Speech Apraxia. He's 7 years old, and since our family travels frequently, he's a little expert in flying by now, but he was willing to attend with me, so that I could see the experience through a child's eyes, as well as an adult's eye.
The presentation was approximately an hour and a half. The first part, which lasted 45 minutes, was a presentation from a TSA Agent and a representative from the ARC of Monroe County.
The two spoke of travel planning, what to pack, and regulations about TSA checkpoints. They also answered questions like "How do you get a child in a wheelchair through metal detectors?" and "What about liquids, like medicine or feeding tube formula?" and "How does the TSA handle flyers who do not like to be touched during the security process?"
The TSA and the ARC of Monroe County also provide handouts about the TSA website, a list of prohibited items, and information about how to enroll in the TSA Pre-Check program.
This part of the presentation is very informative for parents, and many questions can be answered directly during this portion of the program. This part of the program is not interactive for the children, and if you have a child that will have difficulty sitting for a 45 minute period, you may want to bring something that will help them with that. Perhaps a hand-held game or a video?
After the presentation part of the program is completed, it's time to get the kids ready to practice going through security. Since those attending the program are required to pre-register, the TSA already has the names of the adults and children, so no need for a boarding pass. Adult attendees must bring a photo I.D. to participate.
The children walk through the queue towards the TSA agent for check-in.
Once checked by the TSA Agent, children are shown to the conveyor belts and can practice getting a bin, taking off jackets and carry-on items, and sliding them towards the scanners. Once this is done, the kids can walk through the metal detectors with the assistance of an adult.
Children under 12 do not have to remove their shoes, but if they do, they can practice this as well.
Once everyone is the program has cleared security, the group walks to the gate of the "practice plane." Here we are greeted by a Delta representative at the gate.
The children are then allowed to walk down the ramp to the awaiting airplane. This may be a scary prospect for some children with Autism, so being able to practice his ahead of a real flight is very helpful.
Once on the airplane, the children can find seats and practice putting on their seat belts. One of the flight attendants comes by and passes out pretzels or cookies (If your child has a food allergy, you may want to bring an acceptable snack to give your child at this point).
When the children are ready to leave, they practice deboarding the plane and walking back up the ramp to the terminal again.
Back in the terminal, the ARC of Monroe County has a special take-away for the children - Wings!
The "practice" portion of the program, from security to gate to plane and back again, takes 45 minutes.
ARC of Monroe County holds the ROC Your Flight program several times a year and stresses that children can participate multiple times, if they need to go over the process more than once. Pre-registration is required, so be sure to sign up in advance.
Many children with Autism do well with prior practice of a skill, before the actual event. The ROC Your Flight Program aims to provide just that -- PRACTICE.
If you have questions about this program, please feel free to contact Magical Storybook Travels for more information. 585-880-6951 or firstname.lastname@example.org