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Airport Readiness Program

Dylan Tossell collapsed to the floor the first time he boarded an airplane after being diagnosed with autism. Lying in the middle of the plane’s aisle, the 6-year-old curled into the fetal position, covered his eyes and ears, and began to scream and cry uncontrollably. Dylan and his mother Heidi never made it to the tarmac. They never even made it to their seats. Feeling traumatized and defeated, the pair got off the plane and headed home.
“We can’t live like this,” Heidi said to her husband David.
Dylan and his twin brother Ryan were diagnosed with autism by age 3. Like most children on the spectrum, the boys are apt to become severely agitated by out-of-the-ordinary activities such going through security at an airport and boarding a plane. Often, a sensory overload occurs followed by a full-fledged meltdown.
Avid travelers at one time, the Tossells yearned to visit family, take vacations and show their children the world. They felt trapped by the boys’ inability to fly. In a moment of desperation, Heidi turned to Google and typed, “How do you fly with kids with autism?”
Thousands of hits sharing tips and tricks popped up, but one link caught her eye. A doctor in the Northeast had partnered with two airlines to create a mock flight experience designed to prepare families living with developmental delays to fly. Intrigued, Heidi reached out to the professionals behind the program but was disappointed to learn that there were no plans to expand to Dallas-Fort Worth or surrounding areas.
Undaunted, Heidi decided to take matters into her own hands by creating a program locally. She reached out to Delta Air Lines, where she once worked, to share her vision and gauge their interest in participating. Delta eagerly jumped on board, as did professionals from the Child Study Center in Fort Worth where Dylan and Ryan attend the Jane Justin School for children with developmental and learning differences.
In December 2012, after a year of collaboration, the program was finally ready to take flight. Program directors wanted to start small by inviting a handful of families from the Jane Justin School to participate. Parents attended a training workshop where they learned tactics to help them prepare for and participate in the airport readiness experience. They were encouraged to discuss the airport experience at length with their children, and to give careful consideration to the items they planned to bring along.
On the big day, each family drove to the airport with bags packed. From the ticket counter to the jet bridge, volunteer employees from Delta made the experience as authentic as possible. Even boarding passes for a “Flight to Nowhere” were doled out. Once aboard and settled into their seats, parents and therapists from the Child Study Center worked together to make the children as comfortable as possible. As parents engaged the kids with tactics they were taught in the training workshop, flight attendants handed out peanuts and sodas. The simulation resembled a real flight with only one exception: The plane never took off.
There have been three events to date. Anthony Cammilleri, Ph.D., director of the Jane Justin School, has been closely involved in the development of the program. He says that depending on the child, it might take multiple events to prepare for a real flight. Dylan and Ryan have participated in all three airport readiness experiences and are close to taking a short test flight.
Right now the program is only open to families from the Jane Justin School, but there are plans to include other airlines and accommodate outside families as soon as possible. Cammilleri says this type of specialized training is needed nationwide.
Positive testimonials have been filtering in, and a handful of families have already traveled successfully. Heidi dreams of a family vacation to Hawaii in the not-too-distant future. “For children with developmental delays of any kind, there are already so many challenges,” she says. “To know that you can go on a plane and travel somewhere – take a family vacation – that’s beneficial right there. [It’s beneficial] to know that your kids can do something typical.”
Also read these tips for flying with a child on the autism spectrum.