GOFFS: When Derek Greenwood was young, he loved trains. His parents thought it would be nice to take Derek on a short train ride from Halifax to Truro. They purchased the tickets, arrived at the station, but Derek was too scared to board the train.

Today, Derek is 20-years-old. His parents would love to take him to Ontario to visit his grandparents but they worry there will be a repeat of the failed train trip and he won’t board the plane. You see, Derek has autism and any type of extended travel is stressful for him, especially the unknown, and especially the processes of an airport.

“If Derek’s in a vehicle for a long period, his mind is going warp speed for that entire drive,” says Greg Greenwood, Derek’s father. “He thinks everyone should move out of our path. He may be worried about our hotel room, looking at cars, counting lights, stressed about traffic, and of course wondering about what’s at the end of our journey.”

Greg says managing a couple hours on an airplane would be much easier than managing a day or more in a vehicle. And now, a new airport program aims to make air travel for those with autism more attainable. On Sunday, Derek and his parents were among 20 families to participate in the inaugural Autism Aviators event at Halifax Stanfield.

Together with Autism Nova Scotia, Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA) organized a mock travel day for individuals on the Autism Spectrum who have upcoming travel plans or those who are seriously considering travelling in the near future. Participants experienced airport processes first hand including check-in, security screening, waiting in departures, and boarding an aircraft.

“We know many people on the Autism Spectrum are anxious about air travel,” says Kelly Martin, HIAA Customer Relations Manager. “Much of that anxiety comes from the unknown and that’s what we’re trying to change with Autism Aviators. This is the closest you can come to air travel without actually leaving the ground and we’re hopeful these first-hand experiences will help more people with autism feel comfortable to travel.”

Cynthia Carroll is the Executive Director at Autism Nova Scotia. She also believes Autism Aviators has the potential to help many Nova Scotians on the spectrum.

“This partnership is a life changing opportunity for people on the Autism Spectrum and their loved ones. The opportunity to experience the security screening process first hand and then to actually board a plane is extremely beneficial when it comes to travel planning. It finally makes air travel accessible and we are proud to be working with the airport to make this happen.”

For Derek, future travel plans are now a little closer to being a reality. He wants to see the CN Tower, visit a zoo to see an elephant, a tiger, and a giraffe. He’s also looking forward to attending a major league baseball game.

“If this experience alleviates enough anxiety to allow him to make a successful short flight to Toronto, his confidence will build to allow him to make future journeys. It may literally open the world to him,” says Greg Greenwood.

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Abby Cameron
Abby Cameron is the Editor of The Weekly Press and the Laker. She grew up in Shubenacadie and loves serving her home community. She has been with The Weekly Press for almost 10 years. In her spare time she enjoys kayaking, coaching, and spending time with her partner and two dogs.