Project Take Flight Helps Autistic Kids Enjoy Smooth Flights

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The Autism Airport Inclusion Program works with the Philadelphia International Airport to make airplane rides a positive experience for children with autism spectrum disorders. The program was modeled after similar programs done at several museums across the mid-Atlantic area. Photos by Rick McMullin, Philadelphia International Airport

The Legaspi family leaves their home at Buena Park, flying somewhere new every summer. However, 5 years ago, that annual trip changed when their son Rylan was born and diagnosed with autism, said Richard Legaspi, the father.

The young boy has his shares of public meltdowns that result in rude comments and unusual stares from strangers. Hence, their big, annual trips were changed into road trips instead. The family said that is just unfair to all 5 of their sons, so, this summer, they had planned on going to the most prestigious theme park, known worldwide.

Six families, including the Legaspi family were gathered on Saturday at the Joh Wayne Airport, partaking the Project Take Flight, which is a program designed by the TASKids. Together with the airport’s TSA help, the program will introduce children with special needs to the process of flying. The program is hoping to reduce the anxiety among special-needs kids, while opening up the skies to those grounded by a diagnosis.

Legaspi said that the program is only a practice and a process as well. The children with special needs took turns going through the security system as they also interacted with baggage handlers. Their check-in suitcases were packed with the kids’ favorite toys in an effort to help them understand that they will get back their bags, including their toys.

As soon as they were finished, the children enjoyed some snacks, created paper airplanes, while providing them a positive association with the airport. A recent flight incident is still fresh on people’s minds when an autistic kid and her mother were escorted off a carrier because the situation turned out to be disruptive.

Rachel Quintero remembers that incident and said that it heightened her awareness, having a 5-year-old autistic kid herself. Her daughter Lily, she said in nonverbal, usually breaking out in times of excitement. She and her daughter have never flown together, but now the mother is less worried about how her daughter will act, not worried about the reaction of other passengers.

Sofia Rejon, TASKids’ clinical director, said the caregivers are very worried about such kind of situations, thus, they are offering support to the parents as well in order to support their children the same way the caregivers do.

The program is only part of the TASKids’ behavioral therapy provisions. The organization frequently offers one-on-one trips to hair salons, doctor’s office, or their favorite restaurant, Rejon said. Rejon further explained that these efforts aim at helping the children get accustomed to certain locations before their actual appointments.

A few months back, Rachel Perez, a clinical therapist mentioned a family that she has been working with told her their plans on going to an offshore trip for the spring break, however, the parents were very anxious about how their autistic son might react. The 9-year-old boy was particularly scared of suitcases, associating the suitcase to someone he loves leaving him home.

From there, Perez got in touch with someone she knew at the airport, getting her in touch with James Laux, transportation security manager and the TSA. All together, they helped the special boy in practicing certain things such as being around suitcases, going through security, and navigating the airport.

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Jennifer Alvarez is the Pakistan correspondent for USA News and she is based in the capital city of Islamabad. She had never dreamed that she would become a journalist and was happy and content in her married life after she finished her Masters. She used to move to different cities with her husband and had no firm career in mind. It was then that she joined a women’s magazine as an editorial assistant after she saw an advertisement and appeared for the interview. From that small start, she is now a freelance journalist who works for various reputed newspapers and publications from around the world.

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