HEBRON, Ky. – Air travel is stressful enough even for the most experienced road warriors. But it can be particularly tough for children on the autism spectrum.
Enter SOAR, an award-winning program at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. It has helped dozens of families, including Delhi Township's Patrick Boyne's, navigate those waters with a bit of practice. "Starting Our Adventure Right" provides a first-hand opportunity for kids with such disorders to experience a flight – without ever taking off.
Patrick, now 9, was able to travel to California and Disneyland in 2015 thanks to SOAR, which offers step-by-step practice from navigating security to boarding a plane and even dealing with baggage claim.
CVG launched SOAR in 2014 after an employee heard about a similar program at an airport conference, said Wendi Orlando, senior manager of customer relations. There is a national Wings for Autism program, a “rehearsal” type of approach designed for individuals on the autism spectrum; in addition, many major airports have molded their own programs.
The CVG team brainstormed best ways to make a program fit and partnered with The Kelly O’Leary Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which offers diagnostic, treatment and support services. The airport also partnered with the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, among others. The program took off from there, even expanding in the years since.
"We just fine-tuned things a little bit," Orlando said. "We brought everybody together and started having some brainstorming sessions to say, ‘There's this program forming at some of the other airports, how can we do something like that here?'
"We absolutely wanted to provide these families an opportunity to experience new places and adventures that they were thinking they couldn’t.”
For kids on the autism spectrum, flying can be overwhelming. For the parents, the concept can be daunting.
"A vacation-ending meltdown is a very real fear,” said Patrick's mother, Amy Boyne. "A lot of children on the spectrum are so rigid and routine-oriented. Patrick is no exception."
Evidence has shown that a lot of preparation really helps, said Jen Smith, a physiologist and community outreach coordinator for The Kelly O’Leary Center. So SOAR takes participants from start to finish.
About a week before the official SOAR date, parents attend their own on-site training. On the day the program goes live, the families check in, go through security, sit at the departure gate and, afterward, pick up their bags at baggage claim.
"Think about all the anxieties of air travel, and multiply that times 100," Smith said. "These kids experience a lot of sensory sensitivities. They're really sensitive to certain sounds and being in crowded spaces.
"We provide a lot of visual schedules. We walk through what the day is going to look like. And then we have mini schedules, where we take each aspect of the airport -- whether it be security, or waiting at the gate for the plane, or collecting the baggage from baggage claim -- and develop supports for each of those little events within the big event."
Through a partnership with Delta Air Lines, the families also board an airplane, "another big plus for our family," Amy Boyne said. The plane taxis around for about 15-20 minutes before returning to the gate, a feature exclusive to CVG until recently.
The entire program takes about three hours to complete. Some families, like Patrick's, complete SOAR more than once.
It was well worth it, Amy Boyne said.
"I don't think the trip would have gone as well had we not gone through SOAR," she said. "He was so excited. An airport can be an overwhelming place, and it's scary to fly, even for typical people sometimes. But to have had the visuals to read in advance, and to have the practice, he knew what to expect and he was able to better navigate other airports, too.
"More often than not, you hear stories about the negative things that can happen on a plane," Boyne said. "For us, I couldn't have thought of a better way to help him prepare."
In CVG's most recent SOAR event in April, there were 39 participants. In three years, and over the course of seven events, SOAR has reached 112 families and 367 individuals in the Tri-State.
After the inaugural event, CVG started offering SOAR twice a year. Last year, it expanded to include children with other developmental disabilities. In 2014, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital received the Imagination and Courage Award for SOAR from the Jack Rubenstein Foundation. In 2015, CVG, Delta and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were awarded the Faces with Autism Community Partnership Award.
There's currently no data on how many families actually flew after attending SOAR at CVG. But Smith said that's a next step. She plans to start a research study this summer to follow up with program participants to see how many traveled and what impact it had on their preparations.
"I have families stop me all the time to say, 'We flew to Florida, and he did fantastic.' They never could have done it without this," Smith said.
The next SOAR event will take place this fall