At the Alaska Airlines ticket counter at Sea-Tac Airport, parents Ron and Christine Vega wait for their boarding passes.
Their son, Gibson, 5, carries a blue backpack that has essentials for a mock airplane trip: snacks, things to keep him preoccupied and a white cloth towel that helps him deal with stress.
“It’s a lovey, it’s a comfort thing,” Christine says. “Most autistic kids have that.”
The Vegas are taking part in Wings for Autism. It's a program that started in Boston and has been adopted in 12 other cities to help children with autism get used to airport noise and activity. Air travel, stressful for just about everyone, can be doubly so for children with autism spectrum disorder. It’s one reason families avoid flying, which means these kids often miss out on visiting relatives or going on vacation.
Wings for Autism gives families a flying rehearsal, taking them from checking in at the ticket counter to boarding a plane.
“I think this is great simulation for us to do, to see how he really does react to something like this in closed spaces, loud noises, lots of crowds,” Christine says.
And it’s not just the crowds and noises that create stress. It’s different for every child. For Gibson, it’s new situations.
“Sometimes it’s meeting strangers, so for example, even if we’re getting our tickets or going through security, he’s anxious when he sees faces for the first time,” says Ron, Gibson’s dad.
Ron and Christine Vega traveled a lot before they became parents. But they had to put future plans on hold because travel made Gibson anxious. That has meant not being able to visit family who live out of state.
“My parents live on the East Coast and we have not yet gone to see them,” Ron says. “My wife Christine has family members in California as well.”
After they get their boarding passes, the Vegas joined other families to go through security screening.
Nearby, David Porter and his 6-year-old son Daniel also check in. Daniel has flown to visit his grandparents in Iowa.
David says that days before a trip, they use a special book with pictures and stories about what they can expect to see, hear and experience while traveling.
“If things are a surprise to him, and he’s not expecting them, he doesn’t handle it as well as if he’s expecting them,” David says.
The travel training builds on those stories and gives the children basic experience before they launch. Sylvia Fuerstenberg, executive director of the Arc of King County for children with developmental disabilities, says the program helps airport personnel, too.
Fuerstenberg advises them to get guidance from parents.
“The parents know their child best, so if a child is having a meltdown — they’re spinning, they’re flapping their hands, not looking you in the eye, they’re obviously becoming anxious — to really ask the parent, what can I do to help you.”
Inside the plane, the big moment arrives when Captain Bryan Burks welcomes the families.
He explains what to expect in the next half hour. The plane will depart, but just circle around the terminal.
“If it all works out, we’ll actually get on Runway 3 and we’re going to push the thrust levers up and let you know what it sounds like and feels like in a normal take off,” Burks says.
Throughout the ride, parents explain to their children what is happening, what they’re hearing and where the noises are coming from. Even so, a couple have meltdowns.
After the simulated take off, the plane comes to a stop. The fasten seat belt lights are turned off. The Vegas did all right. Ron says the noise didn’t seem to bother Gibson.
“He was clapping his hands and jumping up and down,” he says. “It made him happy to hear the plane.”
The Vegas said they feel hopeful. They want to travel soon while the experience is still fresh for Gibson. But they plan to start small – maybe a trip to Portland.