I could tell immediately which families were checking into the event. I could see the expressions of fear and hope mixed on many parents faces. The stress was apparent, just walking into the airport was hard, but they did it. New environments, demands, regulations, security, unfamiliar faces, and new sounds can all be a pretty powerful roadblock for many families with special needs children. The airport can be a scary place entangling so much new and so much unknown for a child with special needs. It was pretty powerful to watch these parents overcoming the fear and embracing the possibility of traveling with their special needs child.
how this “test run” Worked
I recently volunteered at a Wings for All event in Virginia. Wings for All is a program through The Arc, this program gives children with special needs a dry run at going to the airport. Parents and their children anxiously checked in got their Wings for All tee shirts and gift bag. They quickly hurried over to the ticket counter. Several kids squealed with excitement when they had their boarding pass in hand, others cautiously observed. Families then proceeded to security. They placed their bags, coats, and belongings on the belt and walked through to the gate. Some struggles took place but everyone made it through and proceeded to the gate. Gate 3A was listed as departing to LaGuardia Airport. Families entertained their children, I-Pads were out, children were playing games on phones, some looked out the window at airplanes and towers sharing in the joy together. Boarding was called and families lined up to board the airplane. Once everyone was secure it was time for takeoff, though the plane didn’t take off to New York it did taxi the runway, had a beverage service, and allowed every child to have a moment in the cockpit with the pilots.
As the children exited the plane I proudly cheered and clapped for the children and for their families. While some children were taken back by the praise, some smirked, and other beamed with happiness. Parents sighed and smiled a little smile.
This opportunity allowed families to be able to feel out how their child would do on a flight. To see how their child would handle the pressure of the airport, the lines in TSA, the anxiety of waiting for takeoff, sitting in an airplane, and feeling the movement of a plane. Parents were able to recognize what areas their child would need help with as well as how much their child could actually handle.
Overcome frustration systematically
While attending this event I was able to help a little boy get on the plane. Richmond has several race cars located throughout their airport which are beautiful but a hard display to distract from. A little boy had climbed over the bars and was laying on the floor fascinated by the beautiful race car. I looked at this mom as she pleaded and begged for him to come to her. Her face wet with tears and cheeks red from frustration. She has shared that a passerby had shared some very unkind words to her. I felt her pain, it cut deep. Often when you have a child with special needs when they are struggling with a new environment and a new situation their behavior often isn’t their best. They are trying, it is hard, they can become overwhelmed, sometimes they can adjust, sometimes they can work through it, other times they simply need a break. If you aren’t familiar with special needs you can quickly think that it is a behavior issue for a child. I explained to this loving mom, that the problem was not with her, the problem was with the person who chose to share unkind words with her. Sometimes it is easier for people to say things than to offer help.
I was able to use many distraction techniques, showing this mom first-hand techniques that I personally use for my own children when traveling. I was able to help her and her son smoothly walk away from the race cars, through TSA, and onto the plane. Distraction techniques included first and then language, tactile motivators, visual cues, a ball, and bubbles. While this was a lot of hands-on work, this showed this mom that travel is possible and that with some extra work her son could manage flying on an airplane. For this mom and son to be able to regroup and to try again was simply amazing. To see that little boy light up as he looked at the plane and peeked into the cockpit was worth every extra minute it took to lead him to the plane.
For more on tools I use for distraction techniques and tactile motivators, check out my post THE CARRY ON: WHAT I PACK FOR MY KIDS ON THE PLANE.
Crawl before you walk
I had watched another family that navigated their two special needs children through the airport, through security, and onto the plane to walk out after being seated. Even though these children were not able to stay on the plane for the taxi and beverage service, they were still very successful. They tackled very hard feats, a new building, new procedures, new expectations, and a new role as a traveler. Every step was a positive step in their journey to success. Special needs parenting isn’t a sprint, it is very much a marathon and sometimes you have to just work up to some things. The family quickly stated that they would be back next year to try again.
Check out how I prepare Logan to fly in my post HOW I PREPARE MY AUTISTIC CHILD TO FLY.
Many children and families celebrated afterward with goodies and a reception. This program is amazing and brought so much joy to my heart. As a special needs parent myself, I love that this program exists. It brings awareness and acceptance to so many people. There were several people in the airport who were just learning about this program watching these children board on and off a plane. TSA Officers were made aware of the struggles some of these special needs children faced. The airline employees were accepting of the jumping, hand flapping, spinning, cries, and squeals. There were parents who were proud and impressed with their child taking on a new challenge. Many parents I talked to expressed that the fear of their child’s behavior and tolerance of the new experience held them back from traveling. This program allows parents to see exactly what their child is capable of and to see what could possibly cause a trigger or a weak spot for their child. It was truly a great event.
Here’s how you can get involved
If you are a parent of a special needs child and you want to travel but you are fearful of the outcome. I urge you to check out the Wings for All program, register yourself and your child and walk through this experience. You might be surprised at how well you and your child do, plus it is a great hands-on learning event for all.
If you are looking for an organization or an event to volunteer at, I can tell you personally there was nothing more joyful and satisfying than seeing these children take on this challenge. This program is so beneficial in so many aspects and it was truly an honor to be part of it. The ARC is such a great organization making positive impacts on many lives.
Want to see upcoming events, check for news and updates, or find out more about Wings for Autism/Wings for All? Head over to The ARC’s Wings for Autism/Wings for All page. And don’t forget to see how you can volunteer as well!