Local News

Children with autism spread their wings with practice flight at RDU

Posted June 24

— Boarding an airplane can be a little nerve-wrecking for anybody, but it can be especially difficult for parents of children with autism. A special program is now giving families a little extra help in preparing children to take a flight.

Traveling has become such a part of society that, for so many people, it is second nature. But, for parents of children on the autism spectrum, just the thought of coming to an airport, let alone boarding a plane, is enough to make them think twice.

The last time Fonzie Sandoval was on a plane was before his parents discovered he was on the autism spectrum.

“He started regressing as far as the food that he would eat and the words that he would say,” mother Mandy Sandoval said.

Children with autism spread their wings with practice flight at RDU

The Sandovals were empowered with information about autism but concerned about that fact that, with family in California, they would have to travel. They worried how their son would deal with ticket lines, large crowds and loud noises.

On Saturday, they joined several dozen others with similar concerns in the lobby of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

“It can aggravate him. It can trigger what people would consider a meltdown, tantrum, or just make him really nervous,” father Alfonso Sandoval said.

Children with autism spread their wings with practice flight at RDU

On Saturday, as Fonzie gazed out of a window at the tarmac, he’d already made it at least a third of the way through the process. So had a few dozen other parents and children.

American Airline’s ability team partnered with RDU and the Autism Society of North Carolina to simulate a travel experience.

“You open your eyes to a completely different world. You’re looking at it through their world and what they’re seeing,” said parent Norman Adkins.

The entire process was authentic as families checked in, received boarding passes, went through security and boarded a plane that traveled around the tarmac for several minutes.

Children with autism spread their wings with practice flight at RDU

Kim Tizzard with the Autism Society of North Carolina said the simulation is not just for the families but helps teach anybody who encounters them in a public setting to be sensitive to their challenges.

“This isn’t a behavioral issue. It’s a neurological disorder, is what autism is, and it has its challenges but also has its wonderful rewards,” she said.

Families of children with autism who missed Saturday’s program can call guest services at RDU to arrange a meeting to see how employees can help make a flight easier.

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