Walking through the airport terminal, Thara Bala and her husband hold their son’s hand as they make their way toward their gate. It’s the first time the family will board an airplane together. The life-changing experience is one Bala was unsure they’d ever have as a family.
“We have a 4-year-old and he is on the spectrum,” said Bara of her son who was diagnosed with autism at 22 months. “We’ve never flown before.”
Unpredictable noise and crowds can make airport travel challenging for children with autism or intellectual and developmental disabilities.
But thanks to Wings for All, a national program that gives families with special needs children a simulated flying experience, Bala and her family were able to practice navigating the airport in a risk free and safe environment.
“It’s a really great program and something that’s really needed,” Bala said of the Wings for All event held last month at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. “It gave us a good insight into what to expect for our son.”
The free event is held twice a year at IAH in partnership with the Houston Airport System, the Transportation Security Administration, United Airlines and The Arc of Texas.
Program participants practice all the typical air travel scenarios. They check in at the ticket counter and receive boarding passes, go through security, scan their boarding passes and then board the airplane.
Once on the plane, they view a short movie and receive refreshments.
“I think being able to mimic the entire flight experience was very helpful for us,” Bala said. “My kid is someone who really understands sequences, so to be able to go through the travel sequence is helpful because it sort of eliminates the anxiety that is often experienced by children on the spectrum.”
“He did really well with security, and he did really well with checking in and walking onto the plane,” Bala said. “The way the whole thing is set up was wonderful.”
Since taking flight at IAH, Wings for All has helped to make air travel a possibility for more than 240 families.
“It gives me goosebumps when I think about the amazing stories parents share with me about what the event meant for them,” said Viorica “Ella” Ghica, a customer service manager for IAH.
IAH volunteer ambassadors were on hand to guide participants through the airport, with therapy dog volunteers greeting children at the gate. Before boarding, children were able to meet the pilot and take pictures.
“It was very uplifting to see the families and especially the children and know you can help a child with their learning adjustment,” said Elyse Sporkin, an IAH volunteer ambassador. “It was very inspiring.”
Next month, Bala, her husband and son are flying out of IAH on their first family trip.
“I think it’s just so wonderful that people are open minded and wanting to help all of these children,” she said. “Because it's life changer for us to be able to take a family vacation.”
To learn more about Wings for All, log on to https://www.thearc.org/wingsforautism.