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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.

If Your Child Has Autism, Make Sure These 4 Things Are In Your Will

Autsim Will & Special Needs Trust

Although everyone should have a will, as parents of special needs children, we need wills to ensure that our kids are well cared for and have a good quality of life after we pass.

My son has a dual diagnosis of Autism and Williams Syndrome. Here are four things I recommend all parents of children with Autism – or any special needs – include in their wills or estate plans.

1) A Special Needs Trust – A will is a basic legal document that details your last wishes and is often used to distribute your property or assets.

However, a basic will does not include provisions that are needed to protect and provide for your special needs child. This is where a Special Needs Trust comes into play. A Special Needs Trust can be a part of your will or it can be a stand-alone document. It allows you to designate and qualify your assets in a way that doesn’t penalize your child when it comes to his or her public benefits.

Eligibility for many government benefits is determined based on the resources your child or adult ward holds in his or her name. If your special needs child has too many resources, even by just one dollar, he or she may not qualify for, or may even lose, benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. Even if your child does not currently receive government assistance, he or she may need it in the future.

A special needs trust is a way to protect your loved one’s current resources and future benefits. Through a special needs trust you can leave assets to your child or ward without negatively impacting his or her government benefits.

2) Designated Guardian – We often assume that a member of our family – maybe a sister or our own mother – will automatically be given custody of our children if something happens to us. However, this is not true unless you have a will, trust or estate plan in place that specifically names them as guardians.

Without a legal plan in place, anyone can request custody and a judge will decide with whom your child/children will live with. Choosing a guardian is perhaps one of the most difficult decisions to make. It’s important to choose someone you trust and who will respect your wishes for your child(ren).

Things to consider when selecting any child’s guardian are the guardian’s age, his or her family values, parenting style, character, willingness to serve as guardian and whether he or she already has an established relationship with your child.

With a special needs child there are even more considerations. Think about the traits that you, as a special needs parent, need to raise your child and does the guardian have these traits?  My top three traits for special needs guardians are 1) Energy; 2) Patience; and 3) The ability to advocate for my child. (See Related Post: 10 Tips On Choosing The Right Guardian)

3) Guardianship Letter & Instructions –  Once you’ve selected a guardian, you need to put them in a position to succeed if they are forced to step into your shoes. You should write instructions to the guardian about things they will need to know on how to parent your child.

Include things like your child’s routines, medicines, information about his or her medical providers, how to deal with sensory meltdowns, what is the best way to get them to eat or sleep. Simple things like their favorite stuffed animal that they need to go to sleep with at night or where they like to hide their favorite sippy cup or the name of their favorite YouTube videos are small details – but they are of big importance to our children.

We’ve had years to learn these things about our kids. Help your child’s guardian avoid having to learn from experience by documenting what you already know!  (See Related Post: How To Create A Successful Care Plan For Your Child’s Guardians)

By painstakingly detailing your routines and including details about what makes your child comfortable or happy in your care plan, you are setting your guardians up for success and for a smooth transition in case something were to suddenly happen to you and your spouse.

4) Conservator or Trustee – A conservator or trustee is someone to handle all financial decisions related to your child. A conservator helps ensure that money left to your special needs child is used for your child in ways that best benefit  your child.

Often times families ask me if their child’s designated guardian should also be the conservator or trustee. It depends. Your guardian can serve as both, but sometimes families prefer set up some up checks and balances by selecting different guardians and conservators. It’s important to select someone you trust and who will make smart financial decisions on your child’s behalf.  The guardian and the conservator work together in the best interest of your child.

Getting Started

As a parent of a special needs child and an estate planning attorney, I understand the challenges of adding one more thing to your plate. However, putting into place a will to protect your child with special needs is something we all need to do sooner rather than later – just in case.

We’ll walk you through the will planning process step-by-step. Initial consults are free.  We want to help you create a legal plan that best protects your child with special needs as well as your final wishes for your entire family. I can be reached at or 678.325.3872.


How Georgia Healthcare-Related Bills Fared This Legislative Session

Georgia Legislative SessionThe Georgia 2015-2016 legislative session has officially closed. Of the various healthcare-related bills that were introduced throughout the session, here are some significant bills and how they fared this session:

  • SB 145: This bill would have expanded the list of conditions that could be treated with medical marijuana from 8 to 15 including post traumatic stress disorder, HIV/AIDS and autism. Although it passed the House, it was never brought to a vote in the Senate.
  • HB 916: This bill limits the Department of Community Health’s ability to recoup Medicaid funds based on clerical errors. Having been passed by both the House and the Senate, this bill currently awaits Governor Deal’s signature. If signed into law, the bill will give providers an opportunity to fix paperwork errors without penalty.
  • HB 919: This bill would have allowed individuals to receive state tax credits for donations to rural healthcare organizations. However, the Senate never voted on the bill.
  • SB 302: This bill, which requires health insurers to maintain accurate directories of their providers, passed both houses.
  • HB 1055: This bill would have repealed and replaced Georgia Certificate of Need (CON) law. However, it did not make it very far during the 2015-2015 legislative session having failed to make it past crossover day.
  • SB 1/HB 429: This bill was introduced in the Senate but its contents were ultimately combined with HB 429 prior to passing both houses. It requires insurance coverage for treatment of autism spectrum disorders.
  • HB 684: Introduced as a result of the efforts by the Georgia Dental Hygienists’ Association this bill would have allowed dental hygienists in certain settings to perform preventative care services without a dentist present. Neither the House nor the Senate brought it to a vote therefore it did not even make it past crossover day.
  • SB 304: This bill originally addressed the disclosure of certain mental health records with respect to gun background checks. The final bill passed by the legislature focuses on more efficient testing of rape kits.

If you have any questions or need assistance with healthcare regulatory issues, Jeyaram & Associates attorneys can help. Contact DJ Jeyaram at or 678.325.3872.