The families arrived at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport late Saturday morning for their pre-flight check. Most were smiling, a few toted backpacks and stuffed animals, but all were ready and determined to see the day through, regardless of the perceived or actual challenges they might face.
Welcome to Wings For Autism, a national initiative of The Arc of the United States (and sponsored locally by The Arc of Anchorage) designed as a rehearsal for very real scenarios of air travel.
It’s not just about flying for family vacations. Wings for Autism program staff know that parents in Alaska have to fly for all sorts of reasons; medical procedures and evaluations being one of the most critical. Imagine not knowing how your child will react in a contained, loud, and often confusing environment for hours at a time? Wings offers a test run.
The Arc works with airports all across the country to design real-time flight preparations and implements nearly every aspect of the flying process with participating families, right down to a runway “take-off” and meal and beverage service, all while receiving support from volunteers and airline crew who dedicate their day to these courageous parents, caregivers, and kids.
Alaska Airlines is the go-to company for Alaska, and in the two years of implementing a Wings For Autism event (the first was in 2014), Alaska Air has led the way, with employee and corporate support.
The day goes something like this:
- Pre-registered families arrive at the airport just as they would for a normal flight, two hours ahead of departure. They check in at the Alaska Airlines ticket counter, receive a “boarding pass,” and are directed to the security checkpoint.
- TSA employees have adjusted their schedules to accommodate, bringing on board those experienced with kids, autism, or both, and know it may take a few tries to get a frightened, anxious youngster through the process. They talk, they smile, they cajole, and eventually, all families make it through with everything and everybody intact. Saturday’s group was particularly interested in the rolling metal parts of the luggage X-Ray machine.
- The gate area is surprisingly the trickiest part; kids who often struggle with waiting must now do exactly that. Fortunately, The Arc staff and Alaska Airlines agents anticipated a bit of restlessness and mitigated with encouragement to purchase a snack at one of TSAIA’s many restaurants, the pilot and first officer made the rounds to introduce themselves, and there may even have been a visit or two to the Nursery Read On the Fly site.
- Gate agents announce the flight and everyone boards just like they would if actually going somewhere. Seatbelts are fastened, safety briefings are done with extra care for parents who may need to check and double check procedures with their youngsters.
- The pilot and first officer gave a play-by-play of the noises, movements, and views from the cockpit (since they left the cockpit door open in an awesome display to show what really goes on up there). Individuals with autism often become obsessed with safety, or tight spaces, or new noises, so it is critical to go one careful step at a time, and they did. Revving the engines, the plane shot down the runway as if on a real take-off before slowing down and moving to a taxi on the far side of the airport.
- We ate snacks, we drank soda, we smiled a lot as everyone began to relax at our pseudo-cruising altitude on our Anchorage-Anchorage trip.
One mom of a teenage son said it best as we neared hour two of the process.
“How long have we been on the plane?” she asked, peering out the round window.
When told about 90 minutes, her eyes widened.
“I might be able to get him to Seattle,” she said. “We’ve never left the state together, all of us, before.”
Think about that.
Wings For Autism gave her hope. And hope is sometimes all we parents of special-needs kids have.
Moms and dads, you did good. Anchorage community, this is why I love living here.