published on March 15, 2017 - 5:14 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
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For children and adults who are autistic or suffer from other developmental disabilities, what is supposed to be a pleasant trip by plane can end up being a difficult or downright traumatic experience for them and their families.

 

But a new program being tested in May at Fresno Yosemite International Airport could makes such trips easier by offering developmentally disabled children and adults the opportunity to go through the process of preparing for an airline flight—including getting tickets, standing in lies, going through security screenings and even getting on a real plane—without actually taking a trip anywhere.

The Fresno airport is the first in California fielding the Wings for Autism Program in conjunction with the Arc, a national program that provides care, services and support for developmentally disabled people.

Airport officials get calls throughout the year from families and caregivers of such adults and children asking if a “travel rehearsal” program is available to allow developmentally disabled people to go through the airport without having to buy tickets and actually get on flights, said Vikkie Calderon, a spokeswoman for Fresno Yosemite.

Lori Ramirez, executive director of the Arc for Fresno and Madera Counties, said her national organization has helped organize similar events at other airports, as well as upcoming ones in May at airports in Houston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Mobile, Ala., among others.

“It’s important, because a lot of our families with children are very anxious about taking flight with loved ones” who are developmentally disabled, said Ramirez.

“They’re not sure how a child with autism would react to the situation,” from the airport crowds, to the sights and sounds of a new environment, she said.

Even having to surrender the possessions inside their luggage to be loaded onto a plane or having to put their things in a plane’s overhead compartment can cause stresses in this community, said Ramirez, noting that despite the program’s name, “Wings for Autism,” is open to children and adults with all kinds of developmental disabilities, not just autism.

Part of the purpose of the program is for parents and caregivers to see how their loved ones cope with being at an airport and getting on a plane. It also can give people opportunities to ease up to preparing for a trip and to figure out how to help their loved ones cope.

“They can be loud in their reactions. It can be uncomfortable for families” at an airport terminal or inside a plane, said Ramirez, adding that staff from the Arc will be on hand to help the families and caregivers.

In some cases, the families may see that their loved ones are coping well or figure out ways to help, so they can take real flights in the future. Still some may discover the process is too traumatic and avoid flying altogether.

A total of 50 people, along with their families or caregivers, will participate in the Fresno event, with morning and afternoon runs planned on May 13. The majority of participants—around 40—will be children, ages 15 years and younger, and the rest will be older teens and adults.

A website has been set up at www.thearc.org/wingsforautism, where people can sign up to participate.

As for whether Fresno Yosemite might offer the program after the test, Calderon said it’s a pilot program and airport officials will determine how well the first one goes before deciding whether to do more.


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