In the last few years, many airlines and airports have introduced mock flights for families who wish to expose their child with autism to the concept of flying in a real aircraft.
Though I’m happy to hear of new autism-friendly programs as a whole; I’m a bit peeved that some organizations are trying to make it more of a ‘fun’ experience for the children; rather than include real life situations like being patted down by the TSA or staying buckled up in your airplane seat.
Last month, I was invited by MSP airport’s Navigating Autism Program directors to test first hand how well their mock flight simulation works. I have to say I was very impressed how this particular program not only included all the details that some of the other programs had missed or ignored but adequately prepared kids for a future flight experience.
Join me as I walk you through the program’s very efficient procedure from beginning to end.
Preparation via e-mail
Right after the initial registration, participating families are e-mailed a social story to share with their child.The story contains details of what to expect at the airport and on the flight before they even participate in the actual mock demonstration.
On the day of the real tour, an airport representative at the information booth meets the 8-12 families.They are given their ‘boarding passes’ and a personal airport volunteer guides them throughout the experience.
A real TSA experience in an autism friendly environment
The family is directed to the departure level through TSA Gate 6 checkpoint (which is the actual gate assigned for families in the MSP airport) along with real passengers that are flying that day!
The parents and their children with autism follow the protocol of standing in line, showing ‘boarding passes’ and ID’s to one of the TSA agents, removing jackets as well as shoes, emptying their pockets and going through the scanner as they would normally do if they were booked on a flight!
Familiarization with the terminal
Once cleared by security, the families can walk around the terminal for 30 minutes accompanied by their assigned volunteer before boarding their mock flight.
This intermission is beneficial for parents and children since they become comfortable with the location of stores, food venues, bathrooms and quiet spots for future trips.
Check out the ‘quiet areas’ with rocking chairs
For active children, the airport offers a delightful play area on Concourse C; with a wooden airplane, air traffic control tower, and multiple slides; as well as a statue of Snoopy whose creator is a native Minnesotan.
Kids who need to relax before boarding the airplane can head on to the Family Center that features comfortable seating, a crib, and a separate bathroom. The second level Quiet Seating Area is another option for those wishing to use the area’s rocking chairs or sleeping mats.
Real flight procedure when boarding the plane
After approximately 30 minutes, families head to their ‘appointed gate’ and follow the gate agent’s instructions for boarding.Aboard the aircraft, all ‘passengers’ are expected to sit in their seats, buckle up and listen to the flight attendant’s safety demonstration — just as they would on a real flight.
In the end, the children all receive a bag* filled with goodies that they can use on their future trip, which is a nice touch.
Meeting the pilot and focusing on sensory concerns.
After everyone is safely seated, the pilot, Rich Kargel, comes out of the cockpit and explains how a real flight would feel.
He talks about the sounds of the airplane’s liftoff, touchdown, and pressure in the ears. Then the kids are allowed to explore the aircraft and familiarize themselves with the restrooms and galleys and even plane cockpit.
After their 30 minute ‘simulated flight’ the family is returned to the baggage claim area and back to the tram /parking level.
You can come again
The program is offered on a monthly basis, so families who feel the need to come for another practice run before their trip are welcome to sign up again.
If parents need to contact the program director, they are welcome to e-mail her at Shelly.Lopez@mspm*ac.org
*The Bag is donated by Fraser Minnesota and contains:
- “The Noisy Airplane” book (from Metropolitan Airports Commission)
- Pencils, airport activity book, info from Autism MN & Fraser
- Skittles (from World Duty-Free Group)
- Stuffed airline (from OTG Management)
- Balsam wood airplane and squishy globe (from Metropolitan Airports Commission)
- Free happy meal coupons from McDonalds
- Free water bottles (donated by the Airport Foundation)