Philadelphia Practice Flight Helps Autistic Kids Fly

Dec 26, 2011
Originally published on December 26, 2011 7:16 am

Air travel horror stories typically involve lost luggage, missed connections and overzealous security staff. But families affected by autism face other challenges in navigating airports and planes.

A Philadelphia program is bringing families, airport employees and airlines together to help autistic kids fly more comfortably.

Airports are loud, hectic places: blaring announcements, glaring lights and long lines can spell trouble for people with autism. They often can't tolerate noise, bright lights and close quarters.

Moms gathered at Philadelphia International Airport on a recent morning have experienced the effects first-hand.

"She was screaming, she was pale, she was having trouble breathing," says Susan Stein, whose daughter has autism.

"He didn't understand what was going on and people thought he was being belligerent, and he wasn't, it was just too much," adds Cecilia Thompson, whose son is autistic.

Both mothers haven't tried to fly with their children since their last terrible experiences. But they're back at the airport to give flying another shot — starting with a practice run.

"We do everything from curb to cabin and back," says Wendy Ross, a developmental pediatrician in Philadelphia, who started the practice program after a patient had an especially bad experience flying.

"She had expected to pre-board with her whole family, and then the airline's rules were that she could only pre-board with one family member, and so she got very anxious and aggressive, was biting her parents, and was unable to make that flight home," Ross says.

Besides making families feel comfortable, Ross wants airline and airport staff to know more about autism.

"Some of the kids are really cognitively delayed, and others are very bright, and they are more or less affected by new situations, so how they react really varies by the family and the child," Ross says.

The families wait at the check in counter, where they get boarding passes.

TSA officer Robert Rieser explains the first hurdle: getting through security: "No children will have to take their foot wear off, and all the adults unfortunately have to."

Everybody seems a bit tense as the group proceeds to security, but all the kids make it through.

Carmella Zelli is preparing her family for a trip to Disneyland in April. Her 11-year-old son Anthony is non-verbal and gets agitated easily. She's worried he won't go down the jet way.

"If he can't see what's in front of him, he gets nervous and then he doesn't like to go," Zelli says.

And she's right. Anthony walks all the way down to the plane and then turns around and runs away crying.

Flight attendant Dana McCue says watching the family struggle was a valuable lesson.

"Most of all to have patience, and to be aware of the situation," McCue says.

The other families settle into their seats, and are greeted by a United Airlines flight crew.

The plane doesn't actually go anywhere so families get off after a snack. They gather their belongings, and each kid receives a pin with wings from the airport.

Wendy Ross says it's a symbol of their achievement. "Literally, we are helping kids fly, but as a metaphor, travel is so much more than how we get from one place to another, it is how we experience opportunity."

And even though one boy wasn't able to board the plane this time, Ross says she now knows what to practice with him to get him to Disneyland.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Families affected by autism face many challenges when it comes to travel, especially navigating airports and riding on planes. A Philadelphia program is bringing families, airport employees, and airlines together to help autistic kids fly more comfortably. From member station WHYY, Maiken Scott has more.

MAIKEN SCOTT, BYLINE: Airports are loud, hectic places; blaring announcements, glaring lights and long lines can spell trouble for people with autism. They often can't tolerate noise, bright lights, and close quarters. Moms gathered at Philadelphia International Airport on a recent morning have experienced the effects first-hand.

SUSAN STEIN: She was screaming, she was pale, she was having problems breathing.

CECILIA THOMPSON: He didn't understand what was going on and people thought he was being belligerent, and he wasn't. It was just too much.

SCOTT: Susan Stein and Cecilia Thompson have kids with autism and haven't tried to fly with them since their last, terrible experiences. But they're back at the airport to give flying another shot - starting with a practice run.

DR. WENDY ROSS: We do everything from curb to cabin and back.

SCOTT: Philadelphia developmental pediatrician Wendy Ross started the practice program at the Philadelphia airport after a patient had an especially bad experience flying.

ROSS: She had expected to pre-board with her whole family, and then the airline's rules were that she could only pre-board with one family member. And so she got very anxious and aggressive, and was biting her parents, and was unable to make that flight home.

SCOTT: Besides making families feel comfortable, Ross wants airline and airport staff to know more about autism, and she starts by talking to them.

ROSS: So, some of the kids are really cognitively delayed, and some of them are really bright, and some of them are more or less affected by new situations. So how the way they react really varies by the family and the child...

SCOTT: The families wait at the check-in counter, where they get real boarding passes. TSA officer Robert Rieser explains the first hurdle - getting through security.

ROBERT RIESER: No children will have to take their footwear off, and all the adults, unfortunately, have to.

SCOTT: Everybody seems a bit tense as the group proceeds to security, but all the kids make it through.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD MAKING NOISES)

CARMELLA ZELLI: It's OK, it's OK, and let Anthony go first so that he can get his toy. So far so good.

SCOTT: Carmella Zelli is preparing her family for a trip to Disneyland in April. Her 11-year-old son, Anthony, is non-verbal and gets agitated easily. She's worried he won't go down the jetway.

ZELLI: Because if he can't see what's in front of him he gets nervous and then he doesn't like to go.

SCOTT: Zelli is right. Anthony walks all the way down to the plane - then turns around and runs away crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

SCOTT: Flight attendant Dana McCue says watching the family struggle was a valuable lesson.

DANA MCCUE: Most of all, to have patience, and just step back and be aware of the situation.

SCOTT: The other families settle into their seats, and are greeted by a United Airlines flight crew.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And ladies and gentlemen, from the flight deck, good morning...

SCOTT: The plane doesn't actually go anywhere so families get off after a snack. They gather their belongings, and each kid receives a pin with wings from the airport. Wendy Ross says it's a symbol of their achievement.

ROSS: Literally, we're helping kids fly. But as a metaphor, you know, travel is so much more than how we get from one place to another, it's really how we experience opportunity.

SCOTT: And even though one boy wasn't able to board the plane this time, Ross says she now knows what to practice with him to get him to Disneyland.

For NPR News, I'm Maiken Scott in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.