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Event report: American Airlines mock flight for families w/autism

I can't speak for all 25 families who were at O'Hare International Airport with us on Saturday afternoon, but from our perspective it was an extremely positive day for our kids. It was a very positive day for American Airlines, too, and I'd like to sincerely thank them for the event. It was offered free of charge and the attention to detail for what is not yet an official "public" program was amazing.

If you're new to my blog, check out my post from January 9th leading up to Saturday's airport experience. It offers other details I won't cover here.

When we arrived at ORD, our first task was to find the correct parking...we were told Lot C. That was confusing, but eventually we found it. It was conveniently located next to an underground tunnel which connected to the terminal and the kids were already in high spirits from an escalator ride. So that tells you how the mood for the day went.

Our instructions had directed us to a specific check-in window at the Ticketing Counter. And there was a small pack of smiling American Airlines employees waiting to help us. They had a name tag for my son, boarding passes for our whole family, were available to answer any questions, and had us sign a photo release to take pictures throughout the day.

The next stop was TSA screening where they had a special line for program participants after they checked adult IDs at the podium. This was the only moment of real tension for any of our 4 family youngest was confused and upset about her backpack being taken away, but we were quickly able to reassure her that it would come back to her in just a few minutes after they examined it for any unsafe items. At this point, TSA was probably 10th in a line of strangers who had been enthusiastically greeting us and I think it was just temporarily overwhelming. My son--who we were technically "there" for--was the first to walk through the metal detector and went on without even looking back at me! I don't fly often, but I did feel like the TSA agents were extra helpful and patient because small children were present. I hope that families with young ones always get that level of service.

After mom and dad put our shoes back on, we took the kids across the terminal to the big glass windows and Arrivals/Departures board to show them how busy the airport is. The mock flight was leaving from a gate which required a bit of a walk, but we had plenty of time to go to the restroom, grab some french fries from the food court, and watch all the activity both in the airport and next to the planes. There was even a spot to look down and see the baggage conveyor belts carrying luggage and I stopped to point out the secured area for employees that required ear protection and security clearance to enter. This whole word was new and exciting to both of the kids.

At the gate, it was so relaxing to see other families just like us. At one point later, we observed that sometimes it's nice to know that no matter how your kids react that other families won't blink. They've see it all and aren't judging. Although I have to say...there was a wide range of kids there but it wasn't until the very, very end when my own son was getting cranky that there were any behavior problems. I'm hoping other families felt it was as successful for them as it was for us. It looked that way.

We had seats assigned on our boarding passes and they boarded the plane normally--by rows. The kids climbed right down the jetway and onto the 737 without hesitation. We played the game of finding our row and said hello to the captain and the flight attendants--who were very helpful about taking photos, helping us find our seats, and keeping the kids calm. We buckled seatbelts and I showed my son (his sister and mom were across the aisle) the call button, light button, and air vents. And how the shade on the window goes up and down. How the tray table worked. And how to put his bag under the seat in front of him. So far, so good.

The plane wasn't going to go anywhere and would stay at the gate, but they tried to make the pre-flight as realistic as possible. There was a "delay" while a maintenance worker fixed a light bulb in the back of the plane. The kids had to listen to the safety spiel and video. The pilot spoke on the intercom and told us about the process of lighting and ventilation going from auxiliary power to being powered by the right engine. It started, ran, and shut down after a few minutes. The flight attendants came around with the drink cart and Gate Gourmet had generously provided large bags of snack mix, cookies, juice, and soda for everyone.

Once we "arrived" back in Chicago, the event's organizer led the way to a conference room above the ticket counters where we met for some Q&A. Not only did the flight crew stay, but the Vice President of American had flown in to observe how things went and the head of the company division in charge of...sorry if I get this and inclusive? They were there along with other volunteers for the day. The kids had lots of questions about how fast/high/old the airplanes are. The grownups had lots of questions about travel with special needs kids. And there were cookies, bottled water, soda, juice, t-shirts and goodie bags for the kids, etc..

That was my takeaway from the afternoon, really, was that American Airlines did a superb job of accommodating a group of kids with special sensory, dietary, and other needs...but how do we transfer that to a normal flight when the time comes? My son, for his part, turned to me while the engine was running and asked if next time we could "really go somewhere." Right on. That was the point! We learned a few lessons as well, as parents. My son definitely was ready to get off the plane and wanted to go. Not because he was scared or nervous but because he was done. Not bored, per se. But on any future trip we'll need to reinforce that it's like the long car ride to grandma's house...buckle your seat belt and we'll try to have some more entertainment. I think it's going to take music, games, videos, some new toys, whatever. I'm confident that our family could get on the airplane now without incident. The 2 hour flight to Orlando to go to Disney World? We'll see!