Boarding an airplane can be unnerving for many, but the anxiety only amplifies for those living with autism.
That angst can be even worse for children such as 10-year-old Miriah Steele, a Grade 5, R.C. Garnett Demonstration Elementary student who has autism and a number of other special needs.
On Nov. 18 at Vancouver International Airport, 43 families with autistic children – including the Steeles – took part in the YVR/CAN (Canucks Autism Network) Accessibility Tour.
The tour took the families through the entire pre-flight process including entering the airport, waiting in line, passing through security, and boarding a plane, without ever leaving the ground.
CAN marketing and communications officer Lindsay Petrie said the event “went wonderfully.”
“Flying can be an overwhelming and stressful experience for families with children on the spectrum, therefore, our aim with this event is to make the whole flying experience more predictable while easing anxiety associated with the airport process,” she explained.
The Steeles have been unable to plan a holiday due to their apprehension over flying with Miriah.
Miriah’s mom Tara said when her daughter flew to Disneyland almost five years ago, the trip was completely overwhelming for her, because she focused on her fear of flying the entire time.
“To this day you would ask her if she wanted to go somewhere and the answer was yes but the next question out of her mouth would be. ‘Do I have to go on a plane?’” Tara shared. “Then the entire idea of going there was off.”
Five years later, she still had her mind made up, but the Nov. 18 exercise gave the family the opportunity to show Miriah that flying isn’t that bad.
Tara said events like these not only provide children with autism the opportunity to try new things, but also raises awareness about some of the daily challenges people with autism face.
“To look at my daughter, she doesn’t have facial features in which you would look at her and think she deals with something,” Tara said.
“People would be quick to look at us and think, ‘wow look how ill-behaved she is,’ not knowing that the reason for her meltdown might be coming from stress and anxiety because she doesn’t understand what is happening.”
When the Steeles arrived at Vancouver’s airport they were greeted by some familiar faces from CAN.
“You could see that dropped her anxiety level right away,” Tara said.
The exercise simulated the full routine of air travel, from check in, to baggage checks, to disembarking the plane, and with help from CAN and YVR staff, Miriah, while still having a few anxious moments, was a trooper.
“Something as simple as the airline staff announcing that we would start loading the plane, she immediately covered her ears in fear,” Tara said. “Giving the children a chance to take it all in and to give them an opportunity understand what was happening is what is going to make this successful.”
The whole process is created by adults to move people quickly and efficiently while addressing security concerns.
“You can just imagine how scary it looks for a child who is trying to keep up with the fast pace of all the people in the area, the task of unloading their bags, removing their jackets and shoes and putting them into a bin which you then push into a machine before you walk through the x-ray detector,” Tara related.
As the families disembarked the plane, Tara said her daughter “was so proud of herself, and the CAN staff was there to cheer them on, on their accomplishments.”
“Before we left the terminal we asked her, ‘So do you think you could go on a plane to go on a holiday somewhere?’” Tara shared.
Miriah replied without hesitation, “Yes.”
“First time ever,” Tara said.
Tara said CAN is an “amazing charity that has done so much for not only my daughter but for my husband and I as well.”
“They have created a warm and welcoming environment where people understand what its like to have a child with autism,” Tara said. “I know for myself when I am attending a mainstream program, I am always on edge wondering if my child will participate, if she is going to have an outburst and how others will look at all of us.”
She said she has never had this feeling when attending events through CAN, which she says provides a “safe and supportive atmosphere which over time, created a relationship based on trust where my daughter is actually willing to try new things.”
“Hopefully with more events like this, the exposure these events get will start to educate the general public in understanding autism a bit better,” Tara said.