The whistles of airport security directing traffic, the announcements over the intercom and the strict security procedures can make traveling a stressful experience for anyone.
But for individuals with autism, the sensory overload can be especially difficult for them and their families.
In an attempt to help address those challenges, families were invited to do a run-through of the security-and-boarding processes at Bob Hope Airport on Saturday in an event sponsored by JetBlue Airways, Autism Speaks and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Kenny Rivera, 13, was one of the “passengers” at the event, called Blue Horizons for Autism. Equipped with his Nintendo game, cellphone and noise-canceling headphones in his backpack, he and his parents made their way through security to the gate, and took their seats as they waited for boarding time.
“We want to take little trips, here within California, but we still have a little bit of fear of taking him because of his disability,” said Janet Rivera, Kenny’s mom. “I think this will be a great kind of experience.”
Anxiety is one of his biggest issues, Rivera said, but “once he knows what’s going to happen, piece of cake.”
The event held two rounds of boardings — one at 2:30 p.m. with the first 100 passengers and another at 4 p.m.
On hand were members from New York-based nonprofit Autism Speaks, as well as behavioral consultants from Pacific Child and Family Associates to assist families with any issues.
But it’s not just passengers who benefit from the run-through, according to Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman.
“It gives our employees a chance to interact with these passengers and get an idea of what their needs are,” he said.
The agency works with different autism organizations, and also offers a TSA Cares hotline that travelers can call in advance for accommodations for special needs or simply to answer questions or concerns.
“The bottom line is, every passenger needs to be screened and we want to be able to do it with dignity and respect while still accomplishing our mission,” he said.
By about 2:10 p.m., all the families had checked in and a JetBlue crew member announced it was time to board. Families lined up to practice handing over their boarding passes and headed outside to the ramp.
The Riveras made their way onto the plane, and Kenny settled comfortably in his seat, his parents said, surrounded by his gadgets.
Six-year-old Kiron Rahman also made his way onto the plane with his family, but with a little more anxiety.
The security process went smoothly other than a little trouble standing still in line, said Kiron’s mother, Tanjeeda Rahman. But for her, the real fear is what might happen when the plane actually takes off.
“Is he going to tolerate how his ears get plugged and all that?” she said. “In the plane when he came, that’s when he started his behaviors — touching, hitting — these are what I’m afraid of.”
The family would like to visit relatives in Toronto in August, Rahman said, which is why the Redlands residents came to the event.
Rahman said she was afraid that on an actual flight with other passengers, the experience might be more difficult.
“Once we take off, there’s nowhere we can easily land,” she said.
“Can you stay quiet?” she asked Kiron gently, as a flight attendant began to go over security procedures.
After the announcement — to the background noise of some crying, but also some giggling — families were able to sit for a few minutes, then began deplaning.
The run-through was a success for the Riveras, who said they were ready for a real flight, adding that they wanted to avoid medicating their son and it appeared that won’t be necessary.
“It’s really nice when they provide the tools for the parents,” Janet Rivera said. “Because if you make the mommy happy, [the kids] will be happy.”
Follow Sameea Kamal on Twitter: @SameeaKamal.
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