Susan Leiby’s family missed out on a trip to Europe with her parents and siblings five years ago. She was too worried about how her two autistic sons, Michael and Matthew, 6 and 4 years old at the time, would react to the experience of an airport and an eight-hour flight.

Two years later, her mother passed away, and now Leiby regrets that she’ll never again have another opportunity like that for her sons to make special travel memories with her parents.

“There’s so much to see around the country and around the world,” said Leiby, who works with the S.C. Autism Society. “I was fortunate enough to be able to travel as a child, and those are memories that will never go away. And I want my kids to be able to have those memories.”

Leiby was at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport on Saturday to help other families avoid the disappointment she felt after her family passed up on their European adventure.

Wings for Autism is a program designed to prepare families with autistic children for the air-travel experience by offering them an airport dry-run as close as possible to the real thing. The national program, hosted locally by The Arc of the Midlands, held its first South Carolina event Saturday at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

Delta Air Lines volunteered a special plane and crew for the event.

The program is meant to alleviate some of the stress that families feel when traveling by air with an autistic child. They practice entering the airport, getting their boarding passes, going through security, boarding a plane and sitting on the plane while it taxis the runway.

“Airplanes can be stressful for anyone, particularly for people with lifelong disabilities,” said Melinda Moore, CEO of The Arc of the Midlands. “There are many families unable to travel by air because of the complications and uneasiness that comes with flying.”

Ten-year-old Ian Lawton had never been in an airport or on a plane before Saturday. He bounced with excitement, rolling his new black suitcase and pointing as a pilot walked past while he and his mother, Deitre, waited in the terminal before going through security.

“I want to get him prepared,” Deitre Lawton said. “You never know when anything might come up and you’ve got to go (on an airplane). So I want to see how he’s going to take it and get him prepared for it if we have to fly.”

Robert Mosser, 14, was excited about his first time being on a real airplane. He had been on a small plane before, but Saturday was his first real airport experience.

His parents, Michael and Ruthie Mosser, and older sister Elizabeth, joined him for the occasion.

The Mossers try to take advantage of every opportunity they can to give Robert fun and fulfilling life experiences, they say.

At an event such as Wings for Autism, the Mossers said they feel a comfort in meeting and sharing experiences with other families with autistic children.

“With autism comes a lot of complications sometimes, and these things make it easier,” Michael Mosser said. “It gives you an opportunity to talk to other people, and you realize you’re not alone because there are a lot of kids out there with autism and some form of autism.

“It helps you realize that just because you don’t have a ‘regular kid,’ there are things out there that you can do and enjoy.”


This is a re-post from The State Newspaper – April 18:
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