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Children with special needs have 'dress rehearsal' for flying

Tomas Harp, 7, was ready to go to the head of the security line at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Not so fast. "Tomas – that's part of the process, to wait your turn," his mother, Carolina Harp, reminded him.

Soon they handed over their boarding passes. Tomas and his brother, Mateo, 9, were ready to take Southwest flight 1234 from Baltimore at 1:45 p.m. — a flight that was not actually budging an inch from the gate.

The Harps, from Gaithersburg, were one of 50 families participating Saturday afternoon in The Arc of Baltimore's Wings for Autism, which provides children with developmental disabilities with a dry run of the process of boarding a plane.

Traveling with children can be stressful for anyone. But for those dealing with children on the autism spectrum, it can be traumatic.

Everything about the process of flying — from waiting in lines with hundreds of other people to a bombardment of strange noises — can overstimulate such children.

"You've heard the phrase 'It takes a village'?" mother Jennifer Bishop, of Baltimore, said. "With a special needs child, it takes the entire world."

She went to BWI with her friend Mark Cates and her son, Nathaniel Epstein, 14. Nathaniel had been on a plane once before — 10 years ago. The trip was disastrous, and Bishop promised herself she'd never fly with Nathaniel again.

This spring, with Bishop's mother turning 92 and in need of a visit, the two plan to try again. Wings for Autism was the perfect way to test it out.

Though Nathaniel can walk, he spends most of his time in a wheelchair, Bishop said. He doesn't always want to walk, and if he gets fearful, he might sit down and decide not to move. New, strange places bother him.

"Just going to the grocery store is a big deal," Bishop said.

The mood was a different Saturday, she said. Volunteers from BWI, Southwest, the Transportation Security Administration and Airmall shepherded families through a special security gate. They boarded the plane, got in their seats, heard the safety spiel and were served pretzels and a glass of water.

Within a half-hour, they were back off the plane.

The fastest little flight to nowhere.

Participating parents said that in general they avoid airports and just drive. Harp said she logs a lot of miles when she needs to take her two sons on vacation. Tomas and Mateo have gone on trips to Georgia and Florida.

But this summer the family needs to go to California, and Harp doesn't plan to make that drive.

Mateo concerns her more than Tomas. Mateo can normally be distracted by his iPad or Nintendo 2DS, she said, but he doesn't have any patience and there are times during a flight when those devices must be turned off.

"You tell a child like this to turn it off and it will get dicey," Harp said.

The Toulsons, of Baltimore, thought the process would be a litmus test for their son, Rodney, 18. They've never tried to fly with him, said the elder Rodney Toulson, his father.

"We know he may fly one day, but we didn't know how to approach it," he said.

Just going through the process was a big help, Toulson said.

Bishop learned that the lotion she uses on Nathaniel sets off a drug alarm at the TSA security checkpoint.

And actually getting on the plane was a challenge – Nathaniel briefly refused to get out of his seat without his mom, who was pushing his wheelchair, next to him.

But with a little maneuvering, Bishop moved around to the front of Nathaniel's chair, and the family walked to the first seat and plopped down.

Nathaniel smiled. He had done it.

"How much easier it would be if the airport was filled with volunteers who were expecting us," Bishop said.

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