I read today's AOTA 1-Minute Update and was thrilled to see that a pediatrician and a team that includes OT, Roger Ideishi of University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, arranged to help children with Autism experience the process of traveling by plane from going through check-in, security, waiting to board, boarding, following cockpit and flight attendants' pre-flight and pushing-from-the-gate instructions and having on-board snacks. Although the plane never leaves the ground, it is a great stimulated experience and as those of us who know about children on the Autism Spectrum as well as children with sensory processing differences, this kind of experience is invaluable to the child and their family.
The article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer (click here for the story). I am not surprised that my favorite airline, Southwest, led the way with this team and I'm glad to see other airlines are following suit.
This news story reminded me that in November 2001 I had a precious 7 year old girl on my caseload who had moderate sensory processing difficulties secondary to a stroke she experienced during one of her cardiac surgeries she had as a toddler. Bridget (not her actual name) got the opportunity to go to DisneyWorld as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and for the month preceding her trip, much of our therapy session discussions were about all things related to Disney! :) But on the day before they were scheduled to leave by plane to Orlando, I got a frantic call from her mother; it seems that Bridget was having huge meltdowns with the any mention of going to DisneyWorld. As I listened to her mother I realized that Bridget had never flown before and had never been to an amusement park before. I instructed that Jane not mention DisneyWorld or the trip anymore for that day and to go about their usual routines - running errands and eating lunch, etc. I promised I'd be by after school with a couple of things that I thought might help. Jane did what I asked and in between seeing my other kids for the day at their various schools, I found a computer and created a social story using text and pictures (clip-art and web images) in the form of a book in which I explained every single detail that would happen the next day from getting up, eating breakfast, getting in the car with the luggage, going to the airport, checking in the bags and getting the tickets, going through security (this was the November after 9/11 when security was extra stringent with National Guardsmen and extra security procedures so I even included a friendly looking cartoon soldier with a gun and a wizard with a 'wand' to illustrate that a TSA officer might run a wand around her body). I also included every activity that would occur on the plane, disembarking from the plane, getting the luggage, going to the hotel, and visiting the park including the rides and characters in costume and so on (thankfully, I had just been to Orlando for the AOTA conference a year or two before!) I arrived at Bridget's home and after she showed me her room and toys, we sat down and read the book and she was fine. I suggested that Jane read the story several more times that evening and before bed. The trip went off without a hitch and they all had a great time. :)
The key to the success of both the program in Philly and what worked for Bridget was simply preparation; it's scary to try new experiences when your world doesn't make sense at times (it's sometimes scary even when your world makes sense!) and I believe that remembering to think about this simple fact is a significant key to helping all children succeed and fully participate in their life events.
Going back to the program in Philly - wouldn't a similar program be ideal for an occupational therapist to coordinate at their local airport? I believe it would simply take coordinating with the local Autism support group and contacting the managers of the local airport (most airports have both a facility manager and each airline has a local manager). I will try to find my old social story for Bridget and post it here in the next few days for folks to use if desired. What a gift this kind of program would be to your community and most importantly, the kids! :)