The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 29, 2018 1:00 am

Easing intimidation of air travel

Wings for Autism takes kids onto plane

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

Airports can be daunting and for people with special needs, air travel can present a special challenge.

On Saturday morning, more than 100 people representing 34 families with children or adults on the autism spectrum came to Fort Wayne International Airport for some flight training, sponsored by Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana.

Volunteers with Wings for Autism, in its second year at the airport, took autistic passengers and family members from the ticket line to a half-hour on-board experience on an airplane provided by Allegiant Air. Participants came from as far away as Louisville, Kentucky, according to Janet Schutte, Easterseals director of communications and marketing.

First, there was the ticket counter, where the practice travelers got their boarding passes, followed by a security check and then up the escalator to the gate.

Therapy dogs brought in by the Fort Wayne airport helped calm the travelers, as well as calming items that Michelle Meinika, Easterseals director of behavior solutions, kept in a tote bag. Meinika handed out items including a weighted neck band, headphones to block out upsetting noise, and tangles, or small plastic toys they work with their hands.

Some of the fears autistic travelers have are boarding crowded planes, being up in the air on a plane and looking out an airplane window.

This flight would not leave the ground, however. Rebecca Neild, airport spokeswoman, said Allegiant sent the plane in early for a later flight to Phoenix.

Angel Leaming, 17, of Marion seemed to enjoy the whole experience. After she got her boarding ticket, she toured the airport with her grandmother, Teresa Secrest, and mother, Tara Lamb, visiting the gift shop with a side trip to the arcade where she tried her skills on the volleyball game.

Going through security was easy, and by the time Leaming reached the gate, she found a seat and pulled out her iPad just as any passenger might do.

“Remember to keep your eyes on your bag and listen to announcements,” Secrest told her at one point when she got a little distracted. Secrest said she decided to include her granddaughter in the program because the Fort Wayne airport is a good size.

“We wanted to start her out with this airport. It's more slower paced,” Secrest said.

Addisen Stephens, 15, a North Side High School student, wore green headphones to reduce the noise while she waited to board.

Her mother, Meagan Stephens, said the event was a good way to prep her daughter for a future family trip to either Las Vegas or New York.

Addisen Stephens said the therapy dogs were her favorite part of the day.

After the rehearsal flight, the program had everyone deplane and go to the baggage claim, but not before they were all handed a cookie as they left, a hallmark of the airport.

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