Sunday, February 05, 2017

Wings for Autism program helps children get familiar with air travel

Kynlie Goss, 5, of Edmond, said "Hello Mommy," on the loudspeaker Saturday as families board a plane during the Wings for Autism program

Autistic children were able to practice their preflight skills and how to be an airline passenger Saturday, through Wings for Autism program for the first time in Oklahoma City.

“It should not stop anybody … no disability should stop anybody from living life and following their dreams,” said Will Schifflett, parent of two autistic children at the event.

“Even as an adult I can get stressed out, so I can only imagine what they are dealing with,” he said, and is even planning a surprise trip at Christmastime for his children, which will require them to fly.

The free event, which was held Will Rogers World Airport for families, brought children from across the state to participate in the program and had a waiting list.

“We want all (who) want this experience to be able to share it,” said Andrea Savage, manager for Delta Air Lines Oklahoma City.

The program was brought to Oklahoma by TARC, a Tulsa-based program that provides programs and services for people with developmental disabilities.

A first for OKC

Wings for Autism has been done twice in Tulsa, but never Oklahoma City.

Members of TARC and volunteers had the mission of making flying more comfortable for autistic children and their families, said John Gajda, executive director for TARC.

“Each child reacts differently … it boils down to not being able to deal with unfamiliar situation,” Gajda said.

Children were able to receive a boarding pass, go through security and board an aircraft, before they were able to experience taxing up and down a runway.

Refreshments were also provided with Biscoff cookies, a staple on all Delta Air Lines flights.

Several children were reluctant to go on the plane, but calming parents persuaded them to experience preboarding and taxing a runway for the first time.

“This is a small airport, so this is a great place to get their feet wet,” Schifflett said, having two boys with a rare form of autism.

The form of autism has only been documented in five children in the United States, with his being two of them. Other families also said the program helped them.

“This gave us a lot of ideas on what we need to prepare for when we fly in a few weeks,” Jennifer Goss, a parent of four children from Edmond, two of which have autism.

“We have realized that we need to be a little bit more prepared and bringing things that we know will help kids wait,” Goss said.

Goss will be traveling with her four children to Disney World at the end of February, but said she feels much more prepared now.

Cleared to taxi

An airplane was provided by Delta Air Lines for the event and an hour before the event was cleared to taxi the runway.

“The benefit for the program here is that they get to see the airplane for the first time and not actually on a first trip,” said Troy Geaneas, pilot for Saturday's program.

Personnel from the airport also helped with the program, including the Transportation Security Administration and employees with Delta Air Lines.

Over 150 people attended the event and Gajda and Savage hope the program comes back to Oklahoma for those who were on the waiting list

“Based on our overwhelming success here, we plan on periodically repeating it in the Oklahoma City Area.

“Just with the complexities of an airport operation, definitely there are some distractions and that is the thing we are trying to familiarize them with today,” Savage said.

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