Four children at the airport watching the airplanes.

Wings for Autism takes off in 2014

The Arc will be helping individuals with autism spectrum disorders and other intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families take to the skies in 2014 with an exciting new national program called Wings for Autism™ designed to help smooth the way for air travel for people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Conceived as a “trial run,” the program brings together airlines, airport, and Transportation Safety Administration personnel together with Chapters of The Arc to help people with autism and their families navigate a typical airport experience from checking in through security procedures to boarding a plane and preparing for take-off in a safe and supported environment.

The program also gives The Arc an opportunity to educate airline, airport and security professionals about the challenges travel poses for a person with autism and offers
them tools to use in the course of their work to prepare for and diffuse any problems that may arise.

The ability to freely travel, by air or any other means, is a crucial right for people with or without autism to be able to fully experience the world around them
and access recreation, education and employment opportunities wherever they may be. However, the experience of air travel can be overwhelming for some. Waiting in line, noise, strict security procedures, confined spaces and other challenges often deter people with autism, especially families with children, from taking advantage of air travel. Parents will sometimes avoid flying for fear that their child will not react well to the hustle and bustle of the airport or to security personnel patdowns. Or they worry that they will not be able to stick to their travel schedule or that they will disrupt a flight in the process of taking off if their child becomes frightened.

One of The Arc’s chapters in Massachusetts, The Charles River Center (CRC), recognized this and set out to create a program that would not only help passengers, but help raise awareness of their needs in the travel industry.

Beginning in 2011, CRC developed a relationship with the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which owns and operates airports including Boston Logan International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the country.

Boston Logan International was the perfect place to develop and refine the Wings for Autism concept, and CRC and Massport created a highly successful program serving hundreds of people in cooperation with staff from United Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, American Airlines, Southwest and the TSA.

Everyone from ticket agents to pilots joined in practicing the routine of air travel to help prepare people with autism for what to expect when traveling.

The simulations required families to clear security, board the plane, fasten their seatbelts and prepare for takeoff on an actual aircraft provided by the partner airline and staffed with volunteers.

For children who had issues with the various steps, their parents and (note: Absolutely no therapists — not our model) knowledgeable staff from The Arc were on hand to help them work through the exercise as well as to give airport, airline and TSA personnel valuable insight into how they might handle these and future situations themselves.

In 2013, The Arc of the United States licensed the Wings for Autism program from CRC and worked with their experienced team to create a national program including
a training guide to be used by chapters of The Arc.

Aiport guide in the works

The Arc is also working with the American Association of Airport Executives and Airports Council International-North American to develop a guide for airport personnel across the country.

Now chapters of The Arc can deliver standardized training to local airport, airline and TSA professionals and work with them to put together Wings for Autism events to benefit travelers in their local communities. On January 25 in Seattle Washington, The Arc of King County and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport along with Alaska Airlines will present the first event followed a few days later by The Arc of Jacksonville, Florida, working with JetBlue Airlines at the Jacksonville International Airport. More events are being planned as this article goes to press with a goal of reaching 25-30 cities by the end of the year.

Find out more about this program and the work of The Arc on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at thearc.org/wingsforautism.