Simulated Flight Prepares Autistic Children for Plane Travel

Autistic children at airport

Anyone taking a flight for the first time is likely in for a few surprises. For an autistic child, the experience can be a sensory overload.

The process of boarding entering the crowded terminal, going through security, checking luggage, and boarding a plane are not everyday occurrences. A child with autism may by quite sensitive to all the crowds and unfamiliar situations that move along so quickly. Feeling overly stimulated causes them to feel bombarded.

Schools lead children on fire drills and even storm preparedness simulations, so why not take them on a run-through of what to expect when they fly for the first time? That is exactly what 50 families participated in through the Arc of Baltimore’s Wings for Autism at Thurgood Marshall Airport, joining a trend of similar projects set forth by other similar organizations.

This organization leads families through a test run to familiarize the children with what is expected when taking a place. Children were instructed to wait in line for entrance to a designated security gate, then handed boarding passes for a short flight that never actually left the ground.

Once seated on the plane, the children listened to the security procedures over the speaker, before the staff distributed pretzels and drinks to everyone. Since children with autism are often prone to become absorbed in electronic devices, they must also learn to put these devices away when the airline staff requires it.

The simulation is seen as a test for special needs children to determine whether they are ready and able to take an actual flight. Possible scenarios could be reminiscent of a scene from the film Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character Ray has a screaming meltdown at the possibility of an unsafe flight.

Jennifer Bishop, a Baltimore mother of a 14 year old autistic boy named Nathaniel, took a plane trip with her son 10 years ago that she describes as “disastrous.” Jennifer had such a difficult time that she vowed she would never fly with him again. Now, with her aging mother turning 92, she wants to revisit flying with Nathaniel.

The teen is wheelchair-bound at times and does not always want to walk. New places intimidate him. When boarding the plane with his mother behind pushing his wheelchair, Nathaniel at first refused to get up and board without his mother beside him. With just a bit of maneuvering, Jennifer was able to stand in front of her son and coax him into the first row of seats with her. Once he sat down, Nathaniel smiled with satisfaction.

Implementing a “drill” procedure for boarding a plane and completing the flight successfully can make the experience less traumatic for both special needs children and their families, once an actual flight is necessary. The patience and understanding of volunteers who assisted the children was quite instructive when it came to preparing them for airline travel.