Wings for Autism: What Happened Afterwards

We are so excited to have blogger, Ryan Fox, talk about his experiences after he participated in The Arc of King County’s Wings for Autism program

IMG_2152.JPGOne of my favorite books is Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It’s about adventure, courage, and the fun of taking on new challenges. I recommend it. As a person with autism, this book also reminds me of the importance of travel. The Arc of King County is my very own Dr. Seuss—through their Wings for Autism events they support my yearning to take on new travel adventures.

I was very young when my parents started taking me places. They wanted me to adapt to new experiences and not get stuck in a too-structured life. “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,” wrote Helen Keller. We chose adventure. I rode in cars and buses, on trains and ferry boats, and even in airplanes. To this day, I’ve never had a problem with most of these modes of transportation, but something happened to me on an airplane once as we were leaving Chicago. I was very worried about turbulence and bothered by the cabin’s smell, and when the flight attendants thought I was ill, they almost asked us to get off the airplane. It scared my mom and me. Although we made it home okay, I never wanted to go on an airplane again, and nothing my family did could help me feel better. My sister tried giving me a vial of good-smelling oil to wear around my neck, but I still panicked. I tried to relax, but I was always afraid the crew would throw me off the plane. In 6th grade, after we ended up having to take a train all the way across the country to my grandmother’s funeral just so I could avoid flying, my mom decided to try getting me flying lessons. She thought maybe if I understood more about the operation of the plane and could take control of it, I could eventually be comfortable. I learned a lot about airplanes and airports through flying lessons (which I loved), but I still didn’t want to fly on a jetliner. Whenever I tried to face this fear, I still panicked.

IMG_3048.JPGOne day, we learned that the Arc of King County was sponsoring an event called Wings for Autism at SeaTac Airport. It was patterned after a program launched by the Charles River Center in Boston where a family had planned a trip to Disneyland, and when they got to the airport their autistic child had a meltdown so they had to cancel their vacation. They then created a practice day for families to rehearse going through the airport. I decided to sign up to attend the very first Wings for Autism event at SeaTac in January 2014 as a junior in college. It was a fantastic learning experience. The Arc teamed up with Alaska Airlines, Port of Seattle personnel, TSA, and others. Kids learned to patiently stand in line, go on the escalators and trains, and wait in the boarding area. The highlight was getting to board a real airplane to taxi around on the ramp without taking off. The professionals learned as much that day about how to help families as the families learned about how to travel. It was also a chance to bond with other people dealing with the same problems. I never saw so many other kids wearing big red headphones in my life! (I had occasionally worn them myself in K-12 and people made fun of me—at this event, they were normal and fine.) It was great to see everyone.

The most important thing about Wings for Autism is what happens at home afterward. Families can talk with their kids about what they learned and what it was like, review their photos and videos, and start rehearsing. All of this gives them time to prepare for their next visit to the airport for a real trip.

Wings2014_CockpitI didn’t expect that Wings for Autism day would mean so much to me. I just wanted to be at the airport and help out. But what happened was a miracle and has changed my whole life. Being invited to ride on the aircraft with no fear of being asked to deplane, I realized I didn’t have to be afraid of air travel. I practiced talking to the Alaska Airlines pilots, agents, and flight attendants and introducing myself, explaining my fears and needs. They completely understood! They gave me a fantastic idea to make a little card about autism and me. I have taken these cards on subsequent trips and always give them to the attendants and passengers sitting next to me. Sometimes people don’t know what to say, but other times they smile and nod and “get it”. They offer me extra comfort and attention while I’m on the plane. I love that! Another thing I learned—believe it or not—is that flying in First Class really helps. It’s less crowded, quieter, and more peaceful. I can get anything I need a little quicker, so overall it is much easier to relax. My mom laughed at me when I told her I learned this. She said, “Well, you are not going to be able to travel as often if you have to save up enough money for First Class.” To me, though, it’s worth it!

Within a few weeks of attending Wings for Autism, I made a real flight to visit my sister in South Dakota. I was a little nervous, but I did it. It was great. Then I went to Denver and Albuquerque. Recently, I traveled to Portland for a lesson with a famous musician. Then, for my birthday my parents gave me a trip to San Diego on Alaska Airlines. It was only for one day (because I am still practicing my hotel check-in skills and not quite ready to do an overnight solo), but I did enjoy a bus ride to downtown and lunch on the waterfront.

WingsI have now volunteered at several Wings for Autism events with the Arc. If you and your family come to the next Wings for Autism day, you will see me there, smiling and happy, ready to help you learn to fly. In the future, I would love to work in a job that contributes to everybody’s enjoyment of air travel. I can load bags, deliver parts, planes and cargo, or just help customers with special needs to enjoy their travel. Having studied Aviation Management in college (in addition to Music Performance), done internships at two airports, and knowing several people who work at SeaTac, I am ready to make a difference. I want other people with autism to feel comfortable with aviation, maybe even take flying lessons to visit smaller airports, not just giant ones. I would also love to somehow blend aviation and music to help people relax when traveling.

“Frequency of trials” is something important for autistic individuals to master new skills. The more we can practice handling a situation, the less frightening it will be. To me, this fact is exciting when I think of mastering travel—the more I do it, the better it gets. Travel is good for everybody. Now that I’ve graduated, it would be fun to start a travel club picking up where Wings for Autism day leaves off, to practice visiting hotels, taking cruises, and expanding my horizons. Oh, the places we’ll go!

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One thought on “Wings for Autism: What Happened Afterwards

  1. Reading this I found myself nodding, crying, feeling relief/assurance/empathy…..I can’t wait to hear more from Ryan. What a great blogger. My son is autistic and we did a Wings for Autism event at SeaTac. It was the best experience ever! I loved hearing Ryan’s reaction to the event and how much it meant. Ryan’s article reminds me that I need to get my son out there more in order to “learn and adapt” to the experiences so that he (and I ) can feel more comfortable.

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