Welcome aboard! Photo: Kristin Atkinson

Your first time is something you’ll always remember. Maybe it was with the love of your life or you were even with your parents or had a close family member nearby. You may be nervous, not fully knowing what to do. Feelings of excitement, joy and even some bumps up and down happened. But a helpful hand guides you through a very exciting ride and you end up with a great touchdown.

Yes, that first time you ever fly in an airplane is pure joy and everlasting.

Yet for some, the thought of going through a crowded airport, getting into a pressurized tube with wings flown by a total stranger at speeds exceeding 500 mph, thousands of feet in the air, can be terrifying.

Thankfully there are programs at many airports to help nervous travelers.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Recently, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) hosted its 7th annual ’œWings for Autism’ event that welcomed families. The event was so popular, registration filled up in the first half an hour it opened online. More than 300 families and 1,000 people have taken part in the program during its seven year run in Seattle.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports about one in 68 children has some form of autism spectrum disorder.  The number could be even higher, according to parent surveys done by autism awareness groups.

For the past two years, I had the pleasure of working alongside event planners and gained a firsthand perspective at everything that goes into making this event so meaningful for families. Trust me, these folks don’t miss anything – their dedication is truly amazing.

Sea-Tac Airport Customer Service Manager Sue Hansen-Smith leads the efforts on behalf of the airport. Sue volunteers her time, attending weekly planning meetings with event co-sponsors Alaska Airlines and the The Arc of King County. The team goes over everything from invitations, balloons, welcome gifts, volunteer totals, to the big stuff like airplane, gate and crew availability. It is truly amazing everything that goes into an event that happens once a year for a few hours.

All smiles during “Wings for Autism” Photo: Kristin Atkinson

“Along with 55 event volunteers, Alaska Airlines, TSA and Port of Seattle staff worked the event,” said Wings for Autism Program Manager Stacia Irons. “Many have a connection to autism, or actually have autism and have volunteered at the event to assist others navigate the experience. We have volunteers who have been there at all 7 events and cannot wait until the next one.”

Alaska Airlines plays a major role in the event, donating time with a 737-900, along with flight crew and gate space. The airline has a position dedicated to customer advocacy and accessibility. Simply put: Alaska knows it has a responsibility to serve all passengers, from the million-mile business traveler to first-timers who may have special needs.

Volunteer teams work Sea-Tac’s ticketing counter, and a dedicated TSA security checkpoint for families and the gate area. They guide families through every step of the process, showing autistic children that while sometimes hectic, an airport and airplane ride can be a welcoming and sometimes exciting experience.

’œWe are pleased to work with Wings for Autism to educate and empower this special group of travelers with the airport experience and the security checkpoint process,’ said Jeff Holmgren, TSA Federal Security Director for Washington.  ’œIn addition to the benefit to families, TSA officers learn how to be more responsive to the needs of these travelers without compromising our security mission.’

The exciting part of the day comes as the plane pulls out and taxies around the airfield. A packed 737-900 with a volunteer crew make the 20-minute trip smooth. While the plane doesn’t actually take off, this dress rehearsal is huge for so many kids and families.

A happy “Wings” family, Photo: Kristin Atkinson

“As a parent of a child on the spectrum, my involvement with Wings gives me hope,” Irons said. “It is wonderful watching inclusion unfold as others gain knowledge and understanding of autism while families gain confidence in travel. Wings makes the world a better place for all.”

Wings for Autism is part of a nationwide initiative, developed by of The Arc of the US: in over 45 airports, with 13 airlines and serving over 13,000 people to date nationwide.

CORRESPONDENT - CHARLESTON, SC A lifelong aviation fanatic and former TV news reporter, Brianâ€s unique flight experiences include an Air Force B-1 Bomber and Marine Osprey in addition to working for Boeing and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

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Peter L

A lovely story and I can add a few things having a sweetheart daughter on spectrum.

Everyone on the spectrum is unique. How they react to stimulus is very different.

I’m very very lucky in that she copes very well with noise and light, as well as, food texture.

She’s a great traveler who never disturbs other passengers and loves flying. She’s done several transatlantic trips and transcons without a hitch. Turbulence is fun for her, when other “neurotypical” passengers are hanging on white knuckled to their seat. 🙂 I’ve had her in F on a few occasions and it was never a drama.

I’m sure other parents are very grateful for the volunteers who organize this event. Kudos to the airport and the airlines participating.

Autistic children should never be feared once they are prepared for the trip. Accommodating them is not difficult, once the airlines and the airports learn how to make simple adjustments to their procedures.

I was at Shannon Airport (Ireland) last year, and they recently opened a sensory room in the departures area for children and adults with autism. They are identified early in the check-in process and then airport staff can help them through the airport process, and then relax in the sensory room. After having a tour of the room, I was convinced that every departure lounge should be designed designed. It was very calming and relaxing.

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