Autism Explores Helps Children Overcome Travel Anxiety - My Family Travels

Kevin Tamosaitis is a severly autistic, non-verbal 14-year-old whose father, Richard Tamosaitis became Kevin’s primary caregiver. Before he lost his fight with cancer, Richard Tamosaitis’ last wish was to move his family to Thailand so that Kevin could receive affordable and nurturing around-the-clock care support surrounded by his wife Priya’s extended family. 

Priya now faces her greatest challenge and a challenge for many parents and caregiver of special needs children – physically getting her child to Thailand via air travel.

“Taking Kevin on a commercial plane is terrifying for him and fellow passengers and crew as he will thrash about wildly, yell and cry,” says Priya Tamosaitis.  “Sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication don’t relax Kevin; they have the opposite outcome.”

Airline travel often triggers meltdowns with severely autistic children.  Airplane travel involves going through rigorous screening where unusual behavior is cause for concern by security.  The children must also sit still for long periods of time while being surrounded by crowds.  

Real World Experiences For Kids with Autism

Currently, there is not a specialized nationwide organzation that accomodates air passengers with autism. However, steps have been taken in addressing this issue, starting with a new free program called “Autism Explores.” Autism Explores is  collaboration of Dr. Wendy Ross at Albert Einstein Medical Center, the Philadelphia International Airport, the TSA, and several airlines including U.S. Airways. The program takes children and their families through the whole airport experience from checking in, going through security, finding the gate, waiting, boarding and then waiting some more. It helps kids understand what to expect. "Because preparation is a huge part to any new experience," Dr. Ross said. 

Each aspect of this program, from check-in to baggage claim, replicates the actual flying experience, apart from taking off into the air. The pilot and flight crew embarked on their standard procedures of announcements and walking down the aisles, but the plane never actually pulls back from the gate.

Dr. Ross said the mock flight also helps families come up with strategies to avoid problems like this in the future: for example, getting the child screened instead of going through the screening tower to reduce anxiety.

Special Needs Sensitivity Training for Airport Staff

The Autism Explores program doesn't just benefit families. It's also a learning experience for the TSA and airline crew as as well. Both the families and the airline workers volunteer their time.

The program familiarizes airport personnel with common idiosyncrasies of autistic children and instructs them with how to handle the situation. Flight attendants and TSA agents are trained to meet the needs of fliers with disabilities, but not autism in particular.

Nationally, 1 in 110 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Autism Explores program is planning to expand to future collaorations with cultural institutions, retail establishents, tourist attractions, spectator activities, hotels and more. 

Autism Explores was launched last month at the Philadelphia International Airport and the goal is to offer it nationwide.

For more informaiton, visit The Autism Explores website.

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