For the past six months the Verellis, of Cloverdale, have been taking their daughter and son to the airport in hopes to prepare the children for a family holiday one day.
Kate Verelli is the mother of eight-year-old Ada and seven-year-old Matteo’s mom. Ada and Matteo, Kate said, are both on the autism spectrum.
“They’re both very unique. They struggle with varying degrees of needs when it comes to communication, social interaction, rigidity… They’re both really set in their routines,” Kate said.
“That’s why we’ve been making trips to the airport for the last six months,” she said. “We’ve been taking the SkyTrain and getting off at the airport, and just walking around, (like), ‘Hey, this is where we go to take a plane if we wanted to go somewhere. This is how busy it is. Look at all the different people that are in here. People are carrying their bags, people are tired, people have to line up. There’s lots of light, it’s very big, it’s very loud. Look at how big the planes are and they actually go up in the air.’ All of those things can pose as a major threat or meltdown to them. They can’t regulate it naturally. They have to learn everything a little bit differently.
But the Verellis could only go so far on their own at the airport.
“We were actually contemplating that maybe we should just take a flight to, I don’t know, Kelowna? It’s short enough that if he screams for the full hour, well, it’s not going to be too offensive for everybody on the plane.”
That’s where Canucks Autism Network and Vancouver International Airport came in.
On April 18, CAN and YVR hosted the fifth-annual Autism Accessibility Tour, an “airport rehearsal,” according to CAN.
The tour took individuals and families through the entire pre-flight process, including check-in, finding the gate, going through security and boarding the plane. The event includes a simulated take-off. This year was also the first time that the tour took the families through the arrivals experience.
The Verellis were part of that experience. Kate, her husband, two children and her parents took part in the event.
“Going to an event like this, we get to practice in a really safe environment. We were able to go through the whole process of being on an airplane and what that’s going to look like and getting to their airport. It’s getting a feel for the environment and desensitizing them of any sounds,” Kate said.
With the tour, Kate said, the Ada and Matteo get a sense of the sounds, the crowds, the smells and the lighting at the airport.
“All of those sorts of things can set off my children at any given time because they’re regulating all of their surroundings, so they’re trying to gauge how to respond appropriately because it’s not natural to them.”
Kate said the tour helps to alleviate those anxieties with her children.
“By attending one of these events… we help with alleviating those anxieties that could trigger them without feeling embarrassed, without them feeling judged because regardless of if they don’t look like they’re embarrassed or they look like they’re being judged, they can feel it, they can sense it. It’s not their greatest moment and that event really helps get them there so they can participate in the community.”
The experience, Kate said, went “really well.”
“My daughter had the expected anxiety at security, which we’ve been working through, and she did the best she could. My son also had some sound issues, but by being on the plane and having the sounds and the simulation for what it would be like to take off, I think it’s alleviated quite a lot of that anxiety for him — the nervousness, what he was expecting and what actually transpired were probably a little bit different.”
Kate said she heard about this airport rehearsal about to years ago as a member of CAN.
“But the demand for it was so high, that you have to put in an application and hopefully, you get accepted to go.”
“There’s so many families in need, and so many families that are planning travel that have children on the spectrum.”
Being accepted to go on the tour this year, Kate said, is “huge” for a family hoping to go out into the community with a child with autism.
“It’s difficult. We have a lot of challenges that may not present itself the same way as anyone else because it’s really an invisible disability a lot of the time. You’re looking at them, and they physically, look like everybody else, but they are regulating and trying to get through doing a to of the activities that other children are able to do.
“For us, going to an activity like this, it breaks down those barriers for them and it gets them comfortable in a new environment and it gets them able to participate in the community and participate in family activities in such a safe environment,” Kate said.