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Airport Simulation at Dulles Airport, VA –
Amy and Annie Kelly: Our Journey on November 10, 2012

Annie and Amy outside Dulles Airport
Annie and I had to arrive at Dulles Airport by 7:30am on Saturday, November 10, 2012 to work with Dr. Wendy Ross on an airport 'simulation' with United Airlines. I chose not to tell Annie about the airport and airplane until we were on our way to the airport. Annie had been on an airplane once when she was 9 months old, so she doesn’t remember the experience. She also doesn't really understand social stories; perhaps she would better understand a video. Walking her through something new before she does it can produce more anxiety in many cases. I told her she and mommy were going have a special adventure together on a REAL airplane. We weren't going to go anywhere, but would get to see a really big airplane together.

We parked the car and Annie was VERY excited to take her purse with her iPad (and her 'voice') into the building. I told her we were going to meet my friend Wendy. I did NOT say Dr. Ross... Annie is afraid of doctors and I wanted to prepare her with the least amount of worry. I had Annie help me roll our suitcase from the parking lot through the airport. She looked very proud to pull it!

We had to get our ticket first. There was a small line with very little wait, which made it easy. We received our tickets and I decided to let Annie hold hers, just as a typical ten-year-old would. I am also trying to simulate everything to be as real as possible. We "checked" our suitcase so Annie would see that our stuff had to go away for a little bit before you board a flight. She did fine with this.

Annie and Amy on the aeroTrain
Then we walked to security. I was nervous about Annie and the big guards in uniforms everywhere - let alone going through the weird security detectors. I went first and told her to "do what mama does". I prepped her that she would have to take her shoes off and put her purse on the belt. I modeled, putting my purse and shoes in the big gray plastic container. I pulled out a container and Annie did the same. She walked through security like it was a runway - she even smiled at the guard! We gathered our things and now we had to find Wendy and our gate.

In order to get to our gate, we had to take an airport aeroTrain. Annie was slightly nervous about entering the train - where there were no seats and a pretty loud intercom system. But she held onto the transit poles as it started to move and she loved it! She loved the speed... and even signed the sign for 'more' when it stopped at our destination to the gates.

Annie and Amy inside the airport
The airport was not too crowded, so Annie was not too intimidated. She was checking out everything - the decor on the walls, the escalators, the shops. She saw a Wendy's and asked me for a "cheebuguguer". I told her "First plane, Then cheeseburger". She said "OK".
Annie and Amy with Dr. Wendy Ross

We managed to find our way to the appropriate gate. We did have to stop and buy Auntie Anne's pretzels to eat at the gate while we waited. Annie was very happy to sit and have her snack. I introduced her to Wendy Ross...but again, introduced her as my friend "Wendy". She said hi and seemed good meeting Mommy's friend. Then we had someone from the TSA talk to us all about what we should expect for the upcoming two hours. She introduced Mommy's friend Wendy as "Dr. Ross" to the group. Annie must have heard that because after that she kept saying "No Doctor. No Doctor." Oh well.

Annie and Amy wait to board the plane
We were still waiting to be called for boarding... I looked down and Annie had cinnamon sugar all over her shirt (but her pretzels were gone...). She didn't even notice. I brushed it off and used her iPad to spell "a-i-r-p-l-a-n-e". She found the picture under the transportation icon in her Proloquo2Go app that showed and spelled "airplane". She was excited!
Exhibit 1

I also noticed something else... she had successfully shredded her ticket into 6 or 7 pieces (see Exhibit 1)!! That's what I get for letting her hold her own ticket. Although this is a perfect picture of autism. And if this is our biggest disaster, we will have done great. The airline staff graciously printed another ticket for Annie.

Annie and Amy inside the plane
Finally after some time, our flight was called to "board". (The waiting time was intentional.) Annie was free and clear of cinnamon sugar sprinkles from her clothes and ready to go. I told her how exciting this was to go on a real airplane. We got in the line and handed our tickets in and walked down the corridor to the plane. She was very interested and excited!

Annie and Amy entering the plane
She held my hand the whole way, and we found our way to our seats. The flight staff were very friendly and welcoming, and did a great job of looking and saying hello directly to Annie. We intentionally sat in seats that were behind other seats and slightly tight so she could experience the 'coziness' of an airplane. She held her seatbelt but couldn't quite figure out how to buckle it, so I showed her. I buckled mine and we were ready to go.

Annie and Amy entering the small bathroom
The pilot came on over the intercom and went through the standard message about boarding, flying, turning off portable electronics and watching the flight crew in preparation for take off. Annie didn't pay much mind to this, but I did ask her to turn off her iPad and put it in her purse for later. She complied easily. The plane 'dinged' it's proper dings as if we were taking off, and again when it was 'okay to take off our seat belts because we were at cruising altitude'. When this happened, I told Annie we were going to take off our seat belts and use the potty. I was very insistent that she should use the bathroom because it's so tight, and so loud when the toilet it flushes. She and I managed to squeeze into the stall TOGETHER (that was a feat in and of itself!) and she used the toilet, unphased. I prepped her that the toilet was very loud to flush so she used my hands to cover her ears and then she pushed the button. We washed our hands and were finished. Success!

Annie enjoying watching movies on the screen in her seat
We went back to our seats and I showed Annie the screen in front of her that had movie and entertainment options. They actually had the movie Finding Nemo, her favorite! I started it playing and put on her headphones and she was happy as a clam. The flight attendant with the drink and snack cart came by and asked us what we would like. Annie requested goldfish for her snack with her iPad. We had to tell her that they didn't have those, but she could have juice and either a "big cookie" or a "little cookie". Annie surprisingly picked apple juice when given her choices (which she didn't drink incidentally but enjoyed having at her seat) and asked for the "big cookies" (granola bar) and the "small cookies" (ginger snaps)...both. She tried the big cookie and didn't like it so grabbed my small cookies and traded me. She had her snack and had her headphones with Finding Nemo underway. The passenger behind us, probably around 15 years old, kept repeating over and over to his father "Dad, my video doesn't work. Why doesn't my video work. I need help so the video will work. Dad, why doesn't my video work?"

Annie and Amy heading out of the plane
The pilot came on the intercom again and said that the plane would be landing in the next few minutes and for all portable devices to again be turned off and stowed, seat belts fastened and all trash cleaned up. As Annie's video came to an end she looked at me and said "Nemo", to which I answered "All done Nemo. Airplane is almost all done too." The plane "landed" and they gave us instructions for disembarking.

Annie and Amy on the bus
We were to go to the airport "mobile lounge" (like a bus) to get back to the baggage claim area to get our suitcases. We boarded the bus together and took off to our gate to exit. When we arrived there, the doors wouldn't open to exit! Apparently this has never happened before on the mobile lounge... the staff were unsure of what was going on, but fortunately no one panicked (and all of our participants with autism were completely fine and patient). We backed the lounge bus up and moved to a different door that opened no problem.

Annie and Amy after claiming their baggage
Annie excitedly exited spelling "C-A-R" "C-A-R", as I explained that it was almost time for car, but first we needed to get our pink suitcase. We went to the baggage claim carousel and waited a few minutes before the bags started to arrive. I was trying to keep Annie busy watching for the pink suitcase. When ours came down, she came with me to try and grab it off the carousel. We pulled the handle up and she pulled it all by herself! She had a big smile on her face and seemed very proud of herself.

We got back to the car, loaded our bags and headed for the parking booth. The airline even 'comped' our parking expense. The booth worker didn't know exactly about our simulation when we pulled up, but we managed to explain and get through the toll.

Annie's iPad Proloquo2Go App: "I did great on the airplane. Thank you United!"

Overall this experience was INCREDIBLE for me and Annie. It once again showed me the amazing capabilities Annie has when 'systems' are put in place that make things understandable and relatively routine for her. It also showed me that my family might actually be able be able to fly on an airplane for a vacation some day, something I never thought I would be able to consider with Annie. Lastly, I learned some new things about my amazing daughter - she loved the train (who knew??), she can pull her own suitcase, and she's brave enough to communicate with her iPad and spelling with people in the community. I'm so proud of her.

Annie and Amy with the airplane pilot