Program takes the scare out of the air for special needs kids

SEATAC, Wash. -- Flying with youngsters can be challenging, but Lisa Chiang isn't taking any chances without dry runs. She said she doesn't want to spend $1,500 on airfare for her family if her kids are going to have a meltdown before take-off.

The family practiced at The Museum Of Flight, and now they're rehearsing at Sea-Tac Airport. Chiang's 4-year-old twin girls have autism.

"We've never been on an airplane," said Chiang, whose family travel is limited to long road trips, of longest of which was 20 hours in a car from Bellevue to Southern California.

Lloyd Young checked in his 8-year-old son Declan for a boarding pass.

"He's scared, so am I," said Young.

Declan has autism and his younger brother Harrison has Downs Syndrome. The Young children are pushing their boundaries by boarding a 737 with the guidance of Alaska Airlines crews and the patience of TSA members.

Wings for Autism, which is organized by The Arc of King County, offers a free run-through. It's practice from check-in for people like Chiang, who hadn't dared take her children on a plane ride. The mission is to make children who might be frightened by the unfamiliar feel comfortable in the terminal and on the plane.

"It's just really challenging with them, with all the noises and people," said Chiang.

Sensory struggles can trigger tantrums for young people with with autism. Children participating in the practice flight walked around the airport with head phones and their fingers in their ears. Strange seatbelts, lengthy security lines, escalators, trains, and uncharted territories stressed their senses.

The unknowns of the airport reduced 4-year-old Evan Lecthanski to tears and high-pitched screams. He looked frantic, panicked as he reached what parents call "The point of no return." Evan's mom can't predict what might spark stress but finds comfort in the crowd of families in the same situation.

Barbara Lecthanski wouldn't put Evan on planes for fear he'd yell and kick passenger seats. Lecthanski said she would worry about her son and passengers.

"Mainly you worry about how it is affecting other people," she said.

Routine can reduce stress. The more comfortable 8-year-old Declan is with the process and pilot, the smoother his flight. Declan had first class treatment to the front cabin. Both Alaska Airlines pilot Bryan Burke and First Officer Mark Aown have special needs children.

"This is your first time?" Burke asked Declan. "Sweet," he said beaming as he introduced another child to his cabin.

"Thank you for flying with us," announced a bubbly attendant. "You are on flight L-O-V-E U."

The Captain told passengers what to expect. He planned to start up engines, taxi all around the airport, and get the 737 up to 120 mph before returning to the gate.

Fear of traveling with her boys flew out the window for Heather Young when her son Declan said, "It's really fun on the plane."

It never went in the air, but it gave several families wings.

"It opens up the world to them in ways that we were terrified to do without this, this is life changing," Young said.

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