Wings for All helps children with autism try boarding a plane

Note: This story was originally published Sept. 24, 2016.

Vanessa Pipkin and son Maddox wait their turn to get their boarding passes during the Wings for All event at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The event allowed families with children with autism to practice going through security and boarding a plane. Sept. 10, 2016. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

Boarding a plane with kids in tow can be a challenge for any parent. Did we pack enough activities and snacks for the time spent waiting at the gate and then in the airplane? Is my kid going to have a meltdown going through security, waiting at the gate, boarding the plane or even on the plane?

Earlier this month, 25 Austin families got to try out what it would be like to board a plane through the Wings for All program. All of the families have children with autism, which can make a trip to the airport more difficult.

An airport is the very definition of sensory overload: crowds, alarms going off, airplane noises, motorized carts and more. It can be an overwhelming place for children with autism.

“It’s the fear of a meltdown, ” says Jennifer Penhale about why she and husband Matthew have not flown with their four children. Collin, 8, and twins Carrie and Lori, 11, have autism. Nathan, 13, does not. They’re a military family and move often. They would love to be able to fly to see family. They’ve been driving all over the country instead.

Penhale worried most about going through security, but all four kids did OK. “TSA was very accommodating, ” Pen-hale says.

Vanessa Pipkin brought her 4-year-old son Maddox to the Wings for All program. “We’ve been worried about traveling with him, ” she says while checking in at the ticket counter. “We’ll see how this goes.”

The worry for her is that he’ll become overly anxious. “We want him to be comfortable.”

September was the first time the Wings for All program was done in Austin. It took about a year for the Arc of Texas, the Arc of the Capital Area and the Autism Society of Central Texas, with help with the Doug Flutie Foundation, to work out all the details with Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, American Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration. Deborah Wallace, the chief development officer of Arc of Texas, hopes the program will expand to two Wings for All days in Austin next year.

Matalie Odem took her son Zoreyan Jones, 7, on the Wings for All plane. She talks to him about what is happening on the plane. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

Wings for All not only gives families a chance to try moving through the airport but also provides education and training to airport, airline and TSA staff. “It will help us be able to serve them better, ” says Ramonika Carr, aviation programs coordinator at the airport.

Before the families arrived, they received a book with pictures of the actual Austin airport. The book gave a step-by-step guide on how to go to the airport, get your boarding pass, go through security, wait by the gate and board the plane. The families could prepare their kids by showing them the book and talking about what was going to happen.

Then once families arrived, they were greeted by airport volunteers holding Wings for All signs. Families checked in at an information table and the rest of their day was structured to mimic what it would be like if they were really going on a flight.

Dylan Flint, 7, and Liesa Randel get their boarding passes for the Wings for All flight. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

They went to the ticket counter and got their boarding passes. Then they went through security. TSA had created a dedicated lane for the families and had been trained that the families might need more time, might have children that don’t want to give up the stuffed animal they are holding, might have trouble getting out of a stroller, etc.

Families then found their way to Gate 21, where they did what families always do when waiting to board a plane: They waited and waited and waited.

Like many kids, they grew restless in the hour to an hour and a half that they waited. Parents walked with them or pulled out the iPads or books. Volunteers helped keep kids in the gate area. The families were treated to dinner by airport vendors.

Maddox Pipkin, 4, and his mother Vanessa Pipkin sit in their seats on an American Airlines plane during the Wings for All event. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

Yecenia and Marco Liceaga are planning to take a trip with 3-year-old Sebastian. This was a test run. “It will be less stressful for the future, ” Yecenia Liceaga says. Sebastian was doing remarkably well as he waited, but soon he wanted to walk. So his dad took him for a walk.

Eventually, it was time to board the plane. American planned for all the scenarios. A couple of people were first-class passengers and got to board first. People in the military were invited to go on. Then came the call for people traveling with children or needing extra assistance.

The families lined up to get their boarding passes scanned and then walked down the jet bridge. It was loud and many of the kids were uncertain about the gap between the bridge and the plane. Some were carried on or helped over the gap. Only one child didn’t make it onto the plane. He waited on the jet bridge with large earphones an American Airlines ground crew member gave him to dampen the noise.

The other families found their way to their seats, practiced stowing their backpacks and putting on their seat belts.

The flight crew ran through the different scenarios: the safety demonstration, the safety check to make sure everything was properly stowed, putting away electronic devices, preparing for takeoff, being able to use electronics devices, preparing for landing by making sure seat belts were still fastened and tray tables and electronics were up. And then they “landed in Dallas.” Of course, the plane never really left the gate.

Evelyn Kelley was excited that her son, John Kelley, 16, did so well on the flight. He loved being in the window seat. “We’re going to take him now, ” she says. “We worried, ‘How is he going to do?’ Now we know.”

Ben Camp’s son, Nicholas, 9, was sitting on the other side of the plane by the window. “He got a little nervous, but we made it through.” They had enough distractions to keep him busy.

The families learned what they need to do to prepare for a real flight. Jim and Irma Canfield brought their 28-year-old son, Steven. They learned that they need to practice putting away his backpack. The last time they flew “it was overwhelming, ” Irma Canfield says. “Now we have practice.”

The airport gave each family a goodie bag, and kids could take a picture with the pilots if they wanted to. Then it was time for everyone to get off the plane and head home.

“It means a lot, ” said Matalie Odem, who brought 7-year-old son Zoreyan Jones. “He’s never been at an airport before. With his autism, we didn’t think he could handle an airport.”

Now she knows he can. Zoreyan’s only tears: when he realized the plane wasn’t going to go anywhere and that they would be getting off exactly where they got on.