Travels With Autism: Part 1 — The Airplane
Over the summer I took my 20 year old nonverbal son with severe autism on a trip to Wyoming. This involved a 3 ½ hour flight from the East Coast to Denver and a 1 ½ hour flight from Denver to Wyoming; it was about six hours of plane travel, not counting time waiting in the airports.
Since my son has lots of experience with 7-hour car trips, I wasn’t overly worried, but an airplane is a different environment, and you can’t just pull over and take a break. I took pains to be prepared and had a plan of positive behavioral supports in place for the flights.
It was a simple plan: targeted and intensive positive reinforcement using TAGteach and the current favorite reinforcer – tiny pieces of sugar free gum. From the time he sat down in the plane to the time we got off, I reinforced (tagged and treated) him for Quiet Mouth, Appropriate Vocalization, Hands Down, and Exhales.
I reinforced at a very dense rate, sometimes 8-12 times per minute, and kept this up for most of the flight. (I had no concerns about tantrums, screaming, or bolting since these behaviors have long been replaced by productive and cooperative behaviors; however, I wanted him to be calm and happy.)
It was easy to do this with an i-Click tagger. These are small, quiet taggers that make a faint click sound. I held it cupped in my hand or between my knees with a scarf over it. No one heard it or saw it.
Result? He behaved beautifully throughout the flight. From his window seat, he was intrigued by the scenery and clouds. He enjoyed raising and lowering the blinds, and raising and lowering the tray table; to him, these were interesting gadgets. Luckily, there was an inflight entertainment center so he watched cartoons – without sound! He is not a TV watcher normally, and I was happy that this entertained him.
Between the tags, treats and enjoyable activities the flight went smoothly. He yelped a few times, but nothing extreme. He got up a few times to use the restroom, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Passengers, Crew, and a Surprise
When we boarded I alerted the crew to Douglas’s condition and they were all knowledgeable and supportive. I was impressed.
As the plane was filling up, I started alerting the passengers around me. This is when surprising things began to happen. The gentleman sitting next to me turned out to be the father of a teenage boy with high functioning autism. The gentleman in front of him was a physician who treated patients with autism. The two ladies sitting in front of us were completely aware, supportive and friendly. The three people in the row behind us were equally kind and understanding.
I was surprised to hear this level of support and was gratified and relieved by it; as a result, I felt much more relaxed and calm.
We had a stopover in Denver. The airport was extremely busy, hectic, and high-intensity, as airports usually are. While my son was calm and quiet, and walked nicely along with me, I wished we could be in a less noisy spot. Somehow I had the idea to ask an attendant if there was a disability lounge. Well, there was no specific lounge, but we were directed to Accessibility Services, the center that provides wheelchairs and motorized transit within the airport. What we found there was a lovely quiet room, off the main thoroughfare, with couches, tables and a TV. It was a pleasant place to relax until the next flight, and we avoided the sensory stress of the main terminal.
The final flight and landing went smoothly. My son behaved very well: he deplaned like a pro and headed over to the baggage claim with me where he was a huge help with the luggage! He spotted our suitcases before I did and ran over to pull them off the carousel. Then he grabbed his suitcase and wheeled it away so confidently that you would think he was a frequent flier.
When the van came to pick us, he lifted up the suitcases effortlessly and slid them into the back as though he had done it dozens of times before. I was astonished. He had figured out how to do all these things on his own — quite a change from the early years.
Why did it go so well?
Lots of positive reinforcement! He experienced a steady stream of tags and treats and, since he is a tag-savvy learner, he remained relaxed, calm, and confident. He got lots of compliments from me on his great behavior and excellent help, and he always enjoys that. As the flights progressed I saw that he was doing very well, so I was able to relax too.
Everything went well. The crew and passengers were kind and supportive. The intensive reinforcement plan supported Douglas throughout the flights and stopover, and he exceeded my expectations with his confident and competent behaviors.
We had a great time. Best of all, I know we can travel again and be confident about taking an airplane.
Anybody can do this. Just pack your i-Click tagger, your child’s favorite treats and activities, and the single most important fact about behavior:
“Behavior that is already occurring, no matter how sporadically, can always be intensified with positive reinforcement.” (Pryor, p. 1)
What is TAGteach?
TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.
With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely, quickly, and intensively. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children (and adults) can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.
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Work cited: Pryor, Karen. Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.