The rules of modern air travel can overwhelm even the most seasoned passenger. For children with autism, and their families, going to the airport and taking a flight can seem nearly impossible.
What if there is a flight delay? Could the sights and sounds of the airport trigger an emotional episode? Is there a quiet space to calm down? How do you explain the sensations of takeoff and landing?
These questions were on the mind of Deirdre Van Cleave as she walked through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport recently with her 7-year-old son, Daylen. She was there to participate in an event, Wings for All, hosted by the Arc Georgia to provide an airport “run-through” for people with special needs.
“At the time of Daylen’s diagnosis, I didn’t know what autism was and just didn’t believe it was the correct diagnosis,” she said. “Once I realized he was on the autism spectrum, we began looking for ways to help him. It hasn’t been easy.”
Daylen was born in 2011 and met all the important milestones in early childhood development. After he turned 2, Van Cleave noticed a decline in her son’s ability to respond. Following a series of medical tests and meetings with doctors, Van Cleave’s son was diagnosed with autism.
Van Cleave currently has Daylen enrolled in therapies designed to help with communication, socialization and other behavioral skills. He is currently non-verbal, so communicating with him is a challenge. Speech therapy is helping, along with occupational, equine and music therapy.
“Therapy has been wonderful for Daylen,” Van Cleave said. “He has made so much progress, but we know more experiences like today are needed for his growth.”
Participating in Wings for All exposed Daylen to the Atlanta airport, the noise of an airplane and spectacle of the crowds. The hope is to avoid a bad experience when the family flies to a reunion this summer.
“Instead of spending the money to get a plane ticket and find out Daylen couldn’t handle it, today is a chance to see if he’d be able to tolerate moving through the airport and getting on the plane without having a meltdown,” Van Cleave said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects an estimated one in 59 children in the United States. Reported rates for autism have increased recently due to better diagnostic screenings. Recognizing a growing need for autism awareness, Regions Bank launched a company-wide initiative in 2017 aimed at better accommodating people living with autism, as well as their family members and caregivers.
Regions worked with physicians and behavioral psychologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Autism Society of Alabama to create autism-friendly branches so people can bank independently and with ease. Regions’ branch associates have been educated about autism spectrum disorder and how to respond to a customer’s needs in the event of a meltdown or apparent discomfort. Additionally, sensory packs are available at all 1,500 Regions branches across 15 states. The packs contain a stress ball, sunglasses and noise reduction earbuds to help calm guests with autism who experience sensory overload.
“Our team at Regions works to ensure our products and services are accessible to everyone with disabilities,” said Kathy Lovell, Disability Services and Outreach Manager for Regions. “Regions supports autism awareness and has created an autism-friendly environment for families who visit branches. Our goal is to not only be ADA complaint, but ADA friendly providing the ability for individuals with disabilities to bank independently That desire is part of our bank’s core mission.”
Van Cleave said sensory-friendly environments are crucial for families dealing with autism.
“Parents tend to shy away from doing things when they have their kids because many environments aren’t equipped to handle a sensory overload. Many of our daily errands have to be done in a drive-through setting to reduce the chance of meltdowns because you just don’t know when it might happen,” she said.
Mary Toreno and her daughter, Katie, have flown before, but wanted a refresh on the process before the two head to Boston for Katie to compete in the Special Olympics Summer Games.The need for programs like Wings for All is clear. Van Cleave and her son were among roughly 300 people who went to the Atlanta airport for the interactive, hands-on introduction to air travel.
“Katie’s communications skills are incredible, and that is because of years of therapy and school that have helped with her development,” Toreno said as Katie socialized with others attending the event. “She doesn’t meet a stranger.”
While a few children who attended experienced challenges at the airport, both Katie and Daylen seemed to navigate the process with ease. Their moms walked away confident their next visit to the airport will be smooth and relaxed.