This post is by Stuart Spielman, Autism Speaks Senior Policy Advisor & Counsel.
On February 23rd, five families with children on the spectrum gathered at Newark Airport and boarded a Continental Airlines plane that never left the ground. By any measure, their trip was a success.
For the children involved, the mock flight provided experience with each phase of air travel: gathering belongings for the trip, riding to the airport, waiting in line at the ticket counter, passing through security, heading to the gate, waiting (again) to board the plane, boarding the plane, preparing for take-off, “flying,” deplaning, waiting (yet again) at the luggage carousel, and then traveling home. During their journey, the children encountered airline personnel as well as officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Just as the children gained experience with air travel, so did the airport officials learn more about them and their families.
The mock flight at Newark Airport was arranged by the Autism Explores program based at the Albert Einstein Medical Center, directed by Wendy J. Ross, MD. Dr. Ross came up with the idea for the airport program after one of her patients had a traumatic travel experience. “I thought, ‘This can never happen to one of my families again,” Ross said. Dr. Ross has worked with airline, TSA, and other officials to develop the Autism Explores program, which couples simulated travel with training sessions for airport, TSA, and airline officials. Her work has been supported by Representative Robert Brady of Pennsylvania and Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, among others.
Dr. Ross hopes to expand the mock flight program to airports around the country. She is working on developing similar teaching programs for museums and other destinations for families on the spectrum.
For more information about the Autism Explores program, call (215) 456-6083.