‘Wings for Autism’ set to take flight at ATL

Filed in Events, News by on April 11, 2016

Let’s face it: Traveling can be stressful, even overwhelming.

That’s especially true for individuals with autism, who can easily have a meltdown amid the sights, the sounds and the frenetic pace at airports.

ATL’s inaugural “Wings for Autism” event is designed to ease that stress by introducing – and acclimating – autistic individuals to the everyday routines at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The April 12 event is expected to draw some 100 families, including 35-40 individuals who lie along the autism spectrum. These individuals, ranging in age from 10 to 40 years old, will experience navigating the terminal, undergoing security screening, and even boarding a Delta plane and sitting through a simulated flight.

“The goal is to provide awareness and to allow the community to come in to the world’s most traveled airport to see how we’ve evolved through the years in embracing people with disabilities and in providing an avenue for them to travel,” said Carol Gaddis, Guest Relations manager and event coordinator. “Part of that means ensuring our [Airport] folks are trained, are sensitive to the issues and can relate. We’ve found that a number of our own Department of Aviation members, as well as Airport stakeholders, have families with this disability. So it becomes personal for many.”

Wings for Autism, a national initiative of The Arc, is an airport rehearsal program for people with autism and other intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families. The Arc works with airports nationwide to host local Wings for Autism events as part of an effort to build awareness and training opportunities, not just for individuals with autism, but for airport, airline and TSA personnel as well.

Hartsfield-Jackson has held similar training events for autistic individuals in the past. But over the years, the program has evolved — and gotten bigger. In fact, registration for this year’s event filled up in two weeks, with a waiting list ready to go for 2017.

This year’s event, which coincides with National Autism Awareness Month, has an array of activities for participants. The Center for Puppetry Arts will be on hand with three rotating stations of sensory-friendly fun. And Delta Air Lines, a participating sponsor, will unveil on Concourse F a multisensory room, which will include a minicrash pit, padded platform and tactile activity panel.

“As people travel, while they’re here on a layover or in between flights, they can go into this sensory room,” Gaddis said. “It’s an escape, if you will, from all the noise of a typical airport.”

The event also will feature organizations such as the Autism Society of Georgia, Emory Autism Center, Marcus Autism Center and the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University. These groups will provide the latest information and research, as well as answer questions, about Autism Spectrum Disorder, which affects about 1 percent of the U.S. population or 2 million people.

Of course, the highlight of the Airport event will be the simulated flight experience. Participants will board the plane in small groups. Once situated, the flight crew will advise them to buckle up, let them peek into the cockpit and even flush the toilet, Gaddis said.

“It’s very interactive, very informal,” she said. “The flight crew is not going to close the door or taxi, but it gives participants the feel of what it’s like. They’ll see that these sounds, these sensory things, are normal if they do travel.”

Ultimately, Gaddis said, Hartsfield-Jackson wants participants to know that ATL cares.

A participant is all smiles at a "Wings for Autism" event. ATL will host its inaugural event April 12. Photo courtesy of The Arc

A participant is all smiles at a “Wings for Autism” event. ATL will host its inaugural event April 12. Photo courtesy of The Arc

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