ATLANTA — Lakeya McNeal hasn’t yet taken her son Austin on an airline flight, even though she and her husband travel frequently and the 4-year-old boy loves airplanes.

“We don’t really take him because of his temperament,” she said. Austin was diagnosed last year with autism, and he struggles around loud noises, automated doors and sitting for long periods of time.

But recently, Austin got a chance to experience what it’s like being at the airport and inside an airplane cabin during a “flying rehearsal” at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities.

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“He was really fascinated by looking at the airport, the airplanes outside. And getting on the airplane — he didn’t want to get off. He wanted to go up,” McNeal said.

“We want to travel with him,” she said. She’s now thinking of taking Austin on a short flight to Memphis this fall.

The flying rehearsal event, called Wings for All, is hosted by advocacy group The Arc, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Hartsfield-Jackson. It introduced participants to the experience of going through airport security, moving through the terminal and boarding a plane.

Travel is already a stressful experience for many. The Arc estimates there are 226,000 families in Georgia with someone who has an intellectual or developmental disability. Some may find an airport filled with crowds and unfamiliar procedures to be overwhelming and distressing.

In a survey of parents with a child on the autism spectrum, only 13% said they currently take vacations as family, and 11% said they are satisfied with current travel options for families with autism, according to the Family Travel Association.

The Arc started holding Wings for All events in 2014 at airports around the country. But the event at Hartsfield-Jackson, hosted by the organization’s Georgia chapter, had been on hiatus since the start of the pandemic until last month’s relaunch.

Organizers say the event is not just a chance for parents, children and adults to become more comfortable with the idea of air travel, but also a way to educate airline, airport and Transportation Security Administration employees on how they can help travelers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some people who are misunderstood may be flagged for suspicious behavior, according to The Arc.

Delta also holds its own monthly airport “tours” at Hartsfield-Jackson for travelers who are on the autism spectrum or have other disabilities. These tours feature a pilot and flight attendants offering explanations of the air travel process and tips for how to make a trip go as smoothly as possible. They also include a visit to the airline’s sensory room at Hartsfield-Jackson, which is accessible on request at the information desk on Concourse F.

Parents often avoid traveling with a child on the autism spectrum “because they’re afraid,” if the child has a breakdown and doesn’t want to board the aircraft, said Delta employee Dinah Robinson, who helps organize the tours. “We try to make them feel very, very comfortable.”

© 2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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