Wings for Autism


with Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc


Apr 13, 2018

The air travel process can be difficult for even the most experienced traveler. For those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, including autism, the experience can be daunting. Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc of the United States shares a discussion on his organization’s program designed to alleviate some of the stress that families and family members with autism experience when traveling by air.

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Traynham: Traveling with children can present many challenges for parents. And for children with autism, the break in routine, unfamiliar surroundings, and lack of control pose additional challenges, especially when flying. Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Robert Traynham. Joining me today is Peter Berns. He´s the CEO of the Arc of the United States. He joins me to discuss the challenges for those flying with autism. Peter, welcome to the program.

Berns: It´s great to be here with you, Robert.

Traynham: As always, it is good to see you. So, you know, it´s interesting I never thought about this before. I travel a lot, I´m sure there are many people that are watching this program on their smart device or at home travel a lot as well. But walk us through some of the unique challenges of a parent or a family when they´re traveling with someone with autism -- particularly a child.

Berns: Sure, sure. So for individuals with autism, you know, an airport can be a really daunting experience to try to get through there.

Traynham: Can I pause there for a second?

Berns: Sure.

Traynham: ´Cause I think for any person, regardless of who you are, traveling in an airport, just the anxiety of getting to your flight, all of the sounds, getting through security -- that´s a daunting thing for anyone, right?

Berns: It is. And there are the lights, there´s the noise, there´s the commotion and the crowds.

Traynham: The smells.

Berns: You go through security and you have to give up your belongings and put them on a conveyor belt, and you may end up having, you know, you have to walk through and may end up being subject to a pat-down. You have a lot of time waiting at a gate. You get on an airplane, and it´s, you know, close surroundings and a lot of noise, things that are strange to you. And what we´ve seen is that for children with autism, this can be a pretty daunting experience, as well as for folks with other disabilities.

Traynham: And so walk me through how you all came up with the program. As I understand it, it´s called Wings for Autism -- specifically, what is that?

Berns: Yes. So, Wings for Autism is a travel simulation. A family can bring their son or daughter, their loved one with disabilities, with autism or other disabilities to the airport, and they go through a trail run.

Traynham: Hmm.

Berns: They go up to the ticket counter, they check their bags, they go through security, they go to the gate, they board the plane. They listen to all the announcements from the flight attendants. In some of these simulations, we actually have the planes taxiing around the runway.

Traynham: I see.

Berns: So they can experience it all and know that they can do it, you know, before the family actually plops down a lot of money to pay for a vacation or a trip.

Traynham: Peter, what I´m hearing is this is almost like a dress rehearsal so that the child with autism, it´s not new to them. This is not their first time going through security, hearing the sounds and so forth. So in other words, you´re trying to create an environment that´s a little bit more predictable for them.

Berns: Yeah, this -- so they understand what´s gonna happen, they can practice it a bit, and then finally, the family will get to a point where they can actually take a trip.

Traynham: So I think this is phenomenal, and I guess my burning question is how did this start, where did this come from?

Berns: You know, it all started with one family. And this is a great example of the power of a federation like the Arc. We had one family in the Boston area that was trying to take a trip to Disney World -- a mom and dad, two kids, one with autism. The child with autism couldn´t make it through the airport. They had to abandon the vacation. I mean, the dad and the other child went on the vacation, mom goes home. She went to--

Traynham: Let me pause there for a second. What you just said, I think is really important. So the family had to basically split apart and one part of the family went on with the vacation, the other part had to stay at home.

Berns: That´s right, that´s right. And they -- the mom then went to our chapter outside of Baltimore and Charles River Center, and told their story. And the chapter, they contacted Logan Airport, they contacted TSA, they contacted the airlines, and the developed this program. And they came to us at the national level and told us what they had done, and we said, "Well, hey, we´ll work with you, and let´s take this national." And so we just celebrated -- had our hundredth Wings for Autism event.

Traynham: Wow!

Berns: We´ve been over the last four years, a hundred events at 45 airports around the country. Literally 13,000 people have participated in this program.

Traynham: I think that´s great, Peter, And I´m sure, again, for the folks that are watching at home or on their smart device, they´re probably saying, "Well, wait a minute. My local airport is right around the corner or five blocks away or five miles away. How can I get involved?" Is there a place or a website where they can go to see if, in fact, their local airport´s involved in this program?

Berns: So if they go to, we list future events, and you´ll see when there´s an event coming to your community. And if there isn´t an event coming to your community, contact your local chapter of the Arc or contact our national office, and we´ll see if we can help create one.

Traynham: I think, again, this is great, Peter. My last question for you is folks out there may not have heard of the Arc. What specifically is it?

Berns: So we´re a national charity federation that advocates on behalf of in-service people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, conditions like autism or Down syndrome, Fragile X. And we have 655 chapters in 47 states and the District of Columbia, supporting people with disabilities to be included in their communities.

Traynham: Peter Berns, president and CEO of the Arc of the United States. Thank you very much for joining us. As always, good to see you.

Berns: It´s always good to see you, too.

Traynham: And, of course, thank you for joining us as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Robert Traynham.

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