Airport “Practice” Boarding Programs

wings2Taking autistic kids on vacation often causes concern/doubt/fear/terror for their parents (pick the one that applies to you) and one of the “biggies” is the whole airport experience. You need to help your child negotiate crowds, strange and/or unusual noises, strange smells and, potentially, long periods of waiting.

How would it be if there was a program that allowed families to practice the whole experience before they took an actual trip ? Wouldn’t it be very cool if such a program were also very inexpensive ?

Good News. There are such programs out there and they’re not just inexpensive, they’re FREE !

They vary in both size and frequency. Some of the details also vary but, generally they cover everything to do with flying that can be done without actually leaving the ground. This includes checking in, getting a boarding pass, going through security, getting to the gate, boarding the plane, finding your seat, fastening seatbelts and preparing for take-off. Some also include an on-board snack ! Most also cover going to bag-claim after getting off the plane.

While the primary aim is to help families to practice the whole experience, orientation training is provided to TSA, airport and airline staff before the event and teaches air personnel that parents are their best resource if they have questions about a person on the autism spectrum. Not only do the organizers of these events do this as volunteers but also the TSA, airport and airline staff are often also doing it on a volunteer basis.

Where and when are these events ? I’ve attached a table to this posting with the best information, currently, to hand. It is incomplete. We tried to contact every program that we could find. Volunteers frequently end up with more to do than time in which to do it and some couldn’t, in consequence, get back to us in time. We will update this table on a frequent basis, as more information comes to hand so look for those updates. Here are a couple of specific programs where the organizers were extremely helpful:

  • Navigating Autism is run by the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) and they have the most frequent program; once per month at the Minneapolis-St Paul airport (MSP). They work with the Metropolitan Airport Commission and Delta Airlines. The airport has a social story available online and AuSM have a “tips” sheet online that was prepared by a Delta pilot whose own child is on the spectrum.
  • The Wings for AutismTM was developed by the Charles River Center (a chapter of the Arc) in collaboration with the Massachusetts Port Authority and Jet Blue at Boston, Logan (BOS).
  • In collaboration with Charles River Center, Autism Families Connecticut runs a Wings for AutismTM program at Hartford, Bradley International (BDL) twice per year in June and November. Their next event is on June 15th, 2013. You can still register for this.
  • The Arc of the United States will be taking the program to additional airports during 2013 with more to be added in 2014. We will receive updates from the Arc and will, continuously, update the table of programs to reflect their roll-out.

What to do if there is no program near you or you want to fly before the next scheduled event ? You can do part of this for yourself by taking a “dry run” to the airport. You’ll be practicing getting there, and some general familiarity with the land-side of the airport. It isn’t as extensive as any of these programs but it will help. And, of course, watch out for news of these programs and sign up for one as soon as there is one near you.

Special thanks to Nicole Goble, Leah Wood and Julia Yach for their help in providing information.

Here’s the PDF.   Airport Practice Boarding Programs




  1. We have our first update to the table. Shelly McLaughlin at Pathfinders for Autism gave us an update on her program.

  2. What a fantastic resource for parents of kids with autism that want to travel by air! Thanks!

  3. Michelle Grant Fontes says

    It’s very important that you prepare your child any large very large airports are over stimulating to children with autis and wit and with disabilities most people just look at you and look at the childlik childlike what’s well they don’t understand their sensor i well they don’t understand their sensor is involved so I think this program i so I think this program is awesome taking a dry run to the airport several times before your trip is probably a good idea to spend the day going each week to the airport watch the planes


  1. […] some possibilities with a prior post on Practice Boarding Programs. For details of that post, click here. We are currently in touch with all of the providers of these programs and will soon be publishing […]

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