Simulated Flight Experiences Make Travel Easier | Organization for Autism Research

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The airport experience can be stressful for even a seasoned traveler, but for those on the autism spectrum, it can be overwhelming. The airport’s loud, busy, and unfamiliar environment can be overstimulating, often resulting in meltdowns.

Delta Airlines has recently joined American, JetBlue, and Alaskan airlines in creating a disability support airport rehearsal program. In its Atlanta, Miami, and Minneapolis locations, Delta now offers a simulated flight experience for special needs families to navigate the unfamiliar airport protocol. This training allows individuals with autism to go through the motions of air travel, including ticketing, security, and boarding an aircraft, all without ever leaving the runway.

Along with alleviating the stress of special needs families, rehearsal programs also improve disability competency and accommodation processes for airport personnel. The learning environment that these programs foster allows staff to gain experience in delivering services to those with developmental disabilities. 

The airport rehearsal idea was first introduced by The Arc’s Wings For Autism program in 2013. The program was created with the idea that those with developmental disabilities are just as entitled to visit faraway locations as anyone else. The program aimed to reduce barriers to air travel participation by relieving the hesitation and fear associated with flying. Due to the program’s success all over the country, airlines have created their own programs for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Similar programs provide assistance to travelers with disabilities during airport screening. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has begun to offer sunflower lanyards to travelers with a “hidden disability.”  These lanyards can symbolize a range of disabilities, including autism. The aim of the program is to provide the opportunity for airport workers to better anticipate special needs.

Another popular program is TSA Cares, which provides officers to walk a family through the process, from security to the gate. Programs such as these can be valuable to special needs families, especially with the unpredictability that comes with their child with autism’s first-time flight experience.

Creating airport familiarity and routine can relieve stress, increasing the ease of the travel process for the children and their families. The new skills and habits learned while rehearsing have allowed families to visit loved ones or vacation in places they never dreamed possible.

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