The fear of flying: Helping kids with autism ease into air travel
Temple Grandin, a well-known advocate for people on the autism spectrum, says children have to experience different things in order to develop.
“A child’s not going to find out he likes to play a musical instrument if you never expose him to it,” she said.
That could also be said of air travel, which many people with disabilities avoid because of fear. For children on the autism spectrum, it is particularly difficult, between clearing security and dealing with crowds, overwhelming noises and harsh lights.
At Alaska, we’re dedicated to accommodating all people with disabilities – our airline is fundamentally about lifting people up by providing stellar service.
We are happy to escort those who need help to and from the aircraft and between gates. We also have a dedicated accessible-services line for guests needing special assistance.
Put into practice
For children on the autism spectrum, we aim to make the travel experience less stressful by letting them practice. To date, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air have hosted about 15 total sessions in partnership with local airports and autism-focused nonprofit organizations across the country.
We helped more than 100 families recently during events at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Portland International Airport and Spokane International Airport.
Through our partnership with Anchorage and Spokane chapters of The Arc, a nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities, we provided 300 participants the opportunity to practice entering the airport, obtaining boarding passes, going through security and boarding an airplane. The aircraft then taxied around the tarmac to simulate a flight, without leaving the ground.
“We can’t thank Alaska Airlines and the Anchorage crew enough for their amazing care during the event and to the pilots who participated – you all rock!” The Arc of Anchorage posted on their Facebook page.
Hitting close to home
One of those pilots was First Officer William Batman, who had a personal reason for participating. His grandson is on the autism spectrum and had participated in a practice flight last year. Batman wasn’t working for Alaska at the time and accompanied the young boy on that flight. They talked about how neat it would be if his grandfather could pilot the flight – so this year, he did.
“He had a great time. He was pretty excited to see me on the plane this year,” Batman said. “He was a little disappointed we didn’t take off, so we promised to take him on a trip soon.”
The program not only lessens the stress children and their parents may feel – they enable Alaska employees to provide inclusive customer service, products and services to all travelers, including guests with cognitive and developmental disabilities.
“The flight was amazing,” said Dyoni Shuster, a Horizon Customer Service Agent in Spokane, who volunteered to check in participants and accompany them on the plane. “I felt watching the participants, and assisting them in the process, was a true eye opener on how we should treat passengers.”
Families who have children on the autism spectrum can prepare for an upcoming flight using these resources: