Anyone who works with people who have been diagnosed with Autism knows that they are all unique individuals. However, there are some general characteristics that are recognizable in many such individuals.
My daughter, Amelia, does best in situations where there is a familiar routine, and transitions are anticipated and done calmly and smoothly.
If you have ever flown on a commercial airplane, you know that the process of getting checked in, getting through security, and actually boarding the plane can be filled with frustration, waiting, sudden changes, more waiting, occasional loud noises, and more waiting. Some typical people, even frequent flyers, have difficulty dealing with this situation using socially-appropriate behaviors. Imagine how much more difficult this can be for people with Autism.
Many families have imagined that scenario, and decided that the prospect of flying in an airplane is something they don’t even want to attempt.
Enter the SOAR program.
SOAR stands for “Starting Our Adventure Right”. The SOAR program at Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is a collaboration of The Kelly O’Leary Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, The Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, Delta Airlines, and CVG. The SOAR program permits individuals with Autism and their families to get a supported experience of every part of an airline trip – except actually taking off and landing.
For this program, I had to attend a two-hour orientation session at the airport. This was a very valuable experience! I met other parents who were there for the same program, and got a lot of information about what we would experience. They also gave us some excellent visual support materials for what would happen on the actual day of the SOAR event. These materials included visual schedules for each part of the process, a “First… Then…” board, and some “Wait” cards. This allowed us some opportunities to familiarize Amelia with the schedules and the process long before the day of the actual trip to the airport.
My biggest takeaways from the event:
- The cooperation of all the individuals from all the different organizations involved in this event was top-notch. The TSA agents knew we were coming, and that made a huge difference when we got to the x-ray scanners and metal detectors. If you are taking an actual flight, it is worth the time and effort to review TSA’s guidelines for flyers with disabilities and medical conditions before you even plan your trip. Once you know you will be flying, print and fill out the TSA Disability Notification Card to take with you to the airport. Also, call the number listed on the card three days before your travel dates (ALL departures AND returns) to request the assistance of a Passenger Support Specialist, who will assist you through every part of the security screening where you need it. These preparations can help avoid lots of frustrations at the screening location.
- No liquids may be taken through screening. But, you can take an empty bottle, sippy cup, or other favorite drinking vessel. Once you’re through security, there will be lots of bodega-style storefronts where you can get (for a price) a drink to put in that cup.
- All blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, and electronic devices will be expected to go through the x-ray machine. If someone is very attached to one of those items, prepare them for the time they will be separated from it as it goes through the x-ray machine. If this includes a communication device, note that as part of the information on the blue TSA card mentioned above, indicating that the individual’s ability to communicate is low to none while the AAC device is going through the x-ray machine.
- If a stroller or other apparatus can help with keeping the person calm, helping them move from place to place, or assisting with waiting, it is probably worth the extra hassle of taking it and checking it planeside.
- My daughter, Amelia, had no hesitancy at all with getting on the plane. Her older brother, though, did. He complained at home that morning about his stomach hurting (nerves), and that he didn’t want to go. We used the checklist and other materials that had been sent home with us for Amelia to let Quenton know exactly what he could expect to happen on this adventure. He read all the rules, and we made sure he understood them. He went through each step of the processes, and looked closely at the pictures to see if there was anything in them that made him nervous. In the end, he felt well-prepared not only to go through the process, but to help his little sister make it through this brand new experience, too. That part of the experience was gold.
If your preferred airport does not have a SOAR program, or something like it, to acclimate potential passengers with Autism Spectrum Disorder to the rules and routines of commercial flight, ask them about starting one. The program at CVG would serve as a great model for anyone wanting to bring the program elsewhere.
If you live in the Greater Cincinnati area (I live almost 2 hours away, and it was well worth it), you have a family member who has a diagnosis of Autism, and you even just want to find out whether flying is something that will need more support and practice, I highly recommend the SOAR program. It is free for families to participate, and the experience is absolutely phenomenal.