Mock flights help people with special needs prepare for travel

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When you’re little, life is full of unexpected moments. But when you’re little and you have autism, unexpected moments can send life into a tail spin.

Six-year-old Freya and her family are at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, but they’re not traveling to some far-off destination. They’re trying to stay one step ahead of the unexpected. 

Margo Anderson, Freya’s mom, is narrating the entire walk from the parking lot into the airport.

"So we're going up the escalator and then go through security, so you have to go through some metal detectors," Anderson described to her daughter.

It’s the first Saturday of the month and the family is meeting up with a group called Navigating MSP. It’s a program sponsored by the Metropolitan Airports Commission, supported by volunteers from Fraser, The Autism Society of Minnesota and Delta Airlines, among others. The idea is to help families who have special needs get familiar with traveling at their own pace. 

And it’s not just for kids. Jake Brasch, 24, has been through the program several times as an adult. Now a volunteer, he keeps coming back to inspire others with stories like this.

"I took Uber to the airport on my own and met mom down in Phoenix," said Brasch. "I was proud of myself and surprised how well I did." 

But before these families can take flight, they’ll have to break through a lot of barriers - things most of us take for granted. The amount of patience it takes to move though security. The long, really long, walks to the gate. Filling the down time. And that’s before they even get to the plane. 

Rich Kargel is a Delta pilot who greets the families at the gate. He was also the first person to step up and volunteer for the program. His son Shane, who has autism, is his inspiration.

"Knowing that I've been there and basically letting them know it's going to be alright," said Kargel.

Ian Barrett is also a Delta pilot who gives his time to the program.

"A lot of this has to do with sensory integration, helping this not become an overwhelming experience," said Barrett.

Also in attendance is the Loving family. This is their third mock-flight. They’re hoping to get their 13-year-old son Riley acclimated before an upcoming vacation to the East Coast. The practice is paying off for them. Riley's mother, Barrett Loving, assures him on the jet bridge that he is doing great. Once they board, they know where Riley is sitting.

"He likes the window a lot,"said Barrett Loving. "He does not like the aisle, he does not like the middle. Now we know."

But all the groundwork and best laid plans aside, there are always questions, always doubts. Because special needs or not, as a rule kids melt down at 40,000 feet. 

"I'm sure maybe you know this, but it can go from zero to ten in a matter of seconds," Barrett Loving explained to the pilots onboard. "He's 13 now, so we're used to people staring, but sometimes when you can feel people staring that adds to the anxiety and it adds to his anxiety, too."

Those who’ve been there say things that can help are anything familiar and repetitive: a video screen, a favorite toy. Some of the families even carry a short story made up of cards on a lanyard. They detail every step, so the kids know what’s next. One father says his son loves his story cards so much he walks around with them for days at a time. Parents say they're determined to do anything to help their children.

"Being able to talk about, 'Do you remember when we went to the airport?' 'Do you remember going through security?' Having that experience already will make that travel for real a lot less scary," said Anderson.

At the end on the session, the "flight" ends. The families haven’t left the gate, but you can see how far they’ve come. Pilot Kargel recalls one his most memorable volunteer moments.

"The family had never flown before, always wanted to, but because of their family dynamic they didn't think it was at all possible," said Kargel. "And the father got off the aircraft, right off the jet bridge and looked at me and with a tear coming down his eye and mouthed, 'Thank you.' That's the reward we get from doing this."

Because when you have wings, the sky is no longer the limit.