Air travel—flying through the sky in a narrow seat trapped in a metal tube—is already harrowing enough for many average Americans. But for citizens with certain mental disabilities, stressed by the influx of sensory experiences, the anxiety can almost be too much to bear. To help alleviate the issue, The Arc Baton Rouge teamed up with American Airlines in a big way. As big as an airplane.
On a Saturday morning in May, several families with children affected by mental disabilities descended on the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport for Wings for Autism, an event designed to simulate the real world of air travel—from TSA checkpoints to boarding to taxiing around the runway—in a safe and supportive environment. Although May marked only the second anniversary of this national event in Baton Rouge, The Arc, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities, has already received an outpouring of support.
“It really does play a big part in making real-life travel a success for them,” says Denice Cardona, general manager of Envoy/American Airlines, “because it helps them grow accustomed to the sounds, sights and small spaces that are often a part of travel.”
Sometimes, just recognizing these trigger points can be enough to calm the anxiety of some autistic travelers.
“One of the predominant symptoms of autism is sensitivity to light and loud noises,” says Susanne Romig, director of community relations and development at The Arc. “They’re all about routine and structure.”
But so is a flight crew, which is why the event also helps the airport staff receive lessons in how to handle travelers with special needs and accommodate them within standard protocol.
The plane is prepped for the event by the same group that gets the aircraft ready for morning departures, Cardona says. “It’s a really good experience for the airport in general, because it also helps train the staff to be more sensitive to the needs of these families.”
Jim Caldwell, development and marketing manager for the airport, says that parents and family members from last year have already called to report successful air travel thanks to Wings.
In the meantime, The Arc will continue to host popular events like its inclusive recreation sports, where children and adults with disabilities can play games with siblings and friends who might otherwise be relegated to other teams. The organization’s Plane Pull Festival will also arrive in October.
“It gives you a whole different outlook on disability,” Cardona says. “I think it all teaches us how alike we are, instead of how different.”
To learn more about volunteering, visit arcbatonrouge.org.