Many people take something like flying on an airplane for granted. For a person with autism, traveling can, and often does, impact both the individual as well as an entire family. For people with autism, especially children, simply walking through the doors of an airport can set into motion a series of difficult emotions. And if entering an airport seems difficult, actually riding on a big, noisy airplane can seem impossible.
I am able to empathize with these families because I am one of them. I am the father of a child with autism and recently had the opportunity to participate as a Southwest Airlines Employee in an extraordinary program called Wings For Autism at our Manchester (MHT) Station. The Charles River Center organized the event in conjunction with Southwest Airlines, the MHT airport, and the TSA to give families with children with autism the chance to experience the process of preparing for a flight (entering the airport, checking in at the ticket counter, going through the security checkpoint, and boarding and getting settled on an airplane). This simulated event allowed them to practice in a controlled setting, without the added pressure of a real trip. Since every person who has autism is different, it is hard to know what issues may arise while traveling, so this kind of practice is vital.
Many Southwest Employees from different workgroups across the system volunteered their time to assist with the event. Numerous MHT Employees were involved with printing security documents/boarding passes for each person who registered, and several of these Employees also assisted with the checkin and boarding process on the day of the event. Two Southwest Captains—Ellis and Tom—volunteered their days off and interacted with the children and their families onboard the aircraft. One of our Flight Attendants, Dino, also jumped in without hesitation to help without any advance warning. He had been in town to see the fall foliage and was at the airport to catch a flight back home. Dino stayed onboard the aircraft to make announcements and assist the families right up until it was time to board his flight.
The Wings For Autism event gives families the hope that they will be able to take the trip they always wanted to. As you watch this video, you’ll see why I am proud to have been given the chance to be a part of such an important program. The entire experience was truly a testament of our Employees’ Servant’s Hearts and SOUTHWEST SPIRIT and gave me yet another reason to be proud to be a Southwest Employee.