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Giving Back: Delta’s Special Gift To The Autism Community

Autism Delta Airlines TourSpecial guest blog post by Cassandra Jeyaram, PhD.

Despite my love of traveling, it’s been years since I’ve flown. My last flight was when our son was 8 months old, and we flew to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for multiple tests and evaluations. At 8 months old, my son Kai was easy to “control” and keep happy.

At 7 years old with a dual diagnosis of Autism and Williams Syndrome, the thought of flying with Kai makes my hands sweat and to be honest, want to throw up. No thank you. We have enough anxiety and stress in just our every day, highly routinized lives. But there are times, when we hear about our friend’s taking family vacations or we see trip pictures on Facebook; and we feel the loss of the freedom to travel more acutely. We want our kids to experience the world, but the thought of flying is daunting.

Like many other children with autism and special needs, Kai thrives on knowing what to expect and at any time, any little thing – a sound or smell or sight – can send him into sensory overload and a meltdown. So going to the Atlanta airport – the world’s busiest airport – and asking him to sit still for more than five minutes seemed out of the question.

Delta’s Here to Help: Taking Flight Tour 

However, Delta has launched a program to try to help parents like me who are anxious about flying with their children with autism and other needs. This past weekend, Kai and attended one of Delta’s “Taking Flight” tours. It’s a free tour of the airport – from security to boarding the plane – to help parents and their children become more comfortable in navigating through the airport and flying.

Kai and I and a few other families were met by two Delta pilots, two Delta gate agents, two Delta members of the Complaint Resolution Office, two Delta flight attendants and the head of Atlanta’s TSA near Delta’s international check in. This Delta team not only understood that there’s a lot for our children to process, but that moms and dads are probably pretty anxious too. (Understatement!)

Members of team shared their personal stories about traveling with children or loved ones who have autism or special needs. Wait what? Pilots and flight attendants who understand that the process of having to take off their shoes to go through security can cause an epic meltdown or that the LOUD whooshing of the airplane toilet can cause our children to meltdown? Wow.

They’re Just Like Me!

The more I talked with the Delta team and they shared tips on how to navigate the process from check in to boarding, I started to feel a glimmer of hope. One of our pilots, Erich Ries has a son who is on the autism spectrum. Erich said he’s traveled with his son more 40 times! It hasn’t always been easy, but they did it and he was so glad they did.

Our other pilot, Angie Millar, has a sister who is autistic and during one of the flights with her sister, her sister experienced a seizure. I couldn’t believe it. Here were people just like me! They talked about how through their professional and personal experiences, they have all probably seen and successfully handled every possible situation with individuals with autism or special needs.

Delta Team’s Personal Travel Tips

Some of the personal tips they shared:

  • Call TSA Cares 72 hours before your flight and let them know you have a child with special needs. They can help you make accommodations for your child to make the entire process at the airport smoother (ex. such as meeting you at check in and helping you bypass the long lines at security – it’s like Disney’s Fast Pass!) (1-855-787-2227)
  • Consider creating a laminated card to give to gate agents, the TSA and flight attendants about your child. I know a lot of parents don’t like to bring attention to their child’s disability, so this is a discrete way we can notify individuals that we need help without making a big production. Gate agents, TSA, flight attendants, etc. can’t help us – if they don’t know.
  • If you’re traveling with another adult, consider having your partner board first and create a “nest” on the airplane. For example, get out toys, electronic devices, blankets, snacks, and other comfort items to make your child more comfortable for the flight. Then, you and your child can board last to minimize the time for potential anxiety to kick in and reduce the amount of time they have to sit still on the plane.
  • Sit near the front of the plane. Maybe not in the very front now because that’s the “bulk head” and there isn’t a place to store your carry on (i.e. no way to access comfort items on quick notice). but the second row so you can store their personal bag under their feet. This not only gives you access to their comfort items, but it gives them something to rest their feet on and potentially reduce their likeliness to kick the seat in front of them (what else are they going do with those dangling, antsy feet?!)
  • Watch videos on YouTube about going to the airport or boarding the plane.
  • Create positive anticipation and excitement about going to the airport and your upcoming trip. Pilot Erich creates a countdown for his son and shares with him lots of fun information about where they are going. They talk about their trips in advance – so the trips aren’t a surprise.
  • Every child is different and the aforementioned tips may or may not work for our kids, but they’re a great foundation to get us to start thinking about ways we can make our kids more comfortable and less anxious about navigating through the airport and flying.

A Very Special Gift

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what I took away from the tour was hope. As we were in the plane, pilot Erich looked at me and said, “You can do this.” I almost started to cry. Here’s someone who gets it and has done it – more than 40 times!

This post is by no means a replacement for the tour, but more of an endorsement of the tour and a hope to encourage other parents to take their children on the “Taking Flight” tour so they too can experience first-hand the sights, sounds and smells of the airport and become more familiar with the entire process.

Thank you Delta Airlines and The Arc for making these tours possible. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences with us and for giving us such an amazing and special gift – confidence to travel and share the world with our loved ones.

A very special thank you to Erich Ries, Angie Millar, Maren Vargas, Dinah Robinson and to all the other amazing members of our Delta tour team! THANK YOU!

Take Delta’s Tour

If you’d like to participate in one of the tours, please contact The next tour is October 1, 2016 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at ATL Airport. You must RSVP as spaces are limited.