Come Fly With Me


The flight crew introduced themselves… They too had children with autism and the pilot who led the tour, Erich Andrew Ries, had flown several times with his son on the spectrum.

The thought of working through severe behavior in a closed compartment, flying through the air at 40,000 feet, around a hundred people I’ve never met, makes me want to vomit. Literally, vomit. As you can imagine, since our son’s diagnosis we have not flown together as a family on an airplane. Seven years have passed and we have managed to drive to every location or ask my parents to watch our boys so we do not have to endure this unthinkable act.

Realizing that some day we may need to fly, we looked into an offer we could not refuse. A few weeks ago, we drove to the Atlanta airport to meet a flight crew from Delta airlines. They have started doing mock flights for children with autism to introduce the idea of families flying with their children on the spectrum.

The flight crew introduced themselves. They were a special crew because they had something in common with us. They too had children with autism and the pilot who led the tour, Erich Andrew Ries, had flown several times with his son on the spectrum. Erich was different. He didn’t dwell on the fact that we hadn’t flown with our son in seven years. The Delta pilot instead spent time educating us and encouraged us that the thought of us flying together was not just a pipe dream.

When we walked through the TSA checkpoint, I started to snarl. I thought to myself, “Oh this is going to be fun.” I  was not allowed to curl my lip for too long. I quickly learned that some things have changed in the last seven years. The team discussed a program called TSA Care (1-855-787-2277). If you call ahead and explain to them your child’s disability and when you will be arriving, they will work with you at the TSA gate. What a brilliant idea.

We started to walk through the airport. Broden was a little uneasy, but he hung on to Mark and kept moving. Who really took me by surprise was Hayden. He was looking around and amazed at what was in the airport. “Mom, they have restaurants and stores in here! This place is huge!” I looked over and asked Hayden, “Honey, haven’t you seen the inside of an airport before?” I realized that the last time Hayden flew in a plane was when he was three years old. My heart sank. This is not only a new experience for Broden, but for Hayden too.

Once we arrived at the gate, Erich gave us pointers on how to fly with our kids. He used his own experiences to educate us. He assured us that it was not always easy, but the key was to learn from our mistakes and to keep trying.  1.Book tickets as early as possible. Try to sit at the front of the airplane in window seats. Avoid the back of the plane because of the loud engines.
2.Create a story board of how you get to the airport and how you board the plane. This can give your child a way to prepare for the trip. Show the child a map.
3.Be smart about the way you pack. Get as much as you can in your checked bag and incorporate your child’s needs into packing.
4.Remember electronics that can be on during taxi and take off.
5.Choose carry on luggage that can be put under the seat. It’s easily accessible. If your child is on a special diet, be sure to bring enough snacks. Show a medical prescription for any special medical formulas.
6. Once the plane takes off, pull the bag out onto the floor so the child can kick the bag instead of the back of the seat in front of them.
7. If you are flying with two parents, be strategic with boarding the aircraft. Have one parent board first to set up the seat area with your child’s favorite things. Then have the other parent with the child be the last to board so the child does not have to be on the aircraft while everyone else is boarding and getting settled.

After Erich’s informative talk, I glanced over at Hayden and Broden. Their noses were smashed up against the glass looking at the aircraft. Our pilot said, “Alright, let’s board and see what it looks like inside.” Hayden couldn’t get enough of the aircraft. They were able to see the cockpit and push every button they were allowed to push. Not surprisingly, Broden found the first class seats the most comfortable.

Are we ready to fly? I’m not sure. We still have more practicing to do, but flying together as a family is becoming more of a reality. It is comforting knowing there are airline carriers, like Delta, who understand the struggle. What seemed impossible a few months ago appears to be more of a tangible goal now. My hope is that this pattern of gaining tangible goals will continue throughout our son’s life.•

Shelley Huhtanen is an Army wife with two children, one with autism, whose husband is currently stationed at Fort Hood, TX. She is an autism advocate and currently the parent liaison for the Academy for Exceptional Learners.

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