'Helping Hands' at John Wayne Airport reaches out to travelers with autism, dementia and other cognitive disabilities
Orange County Register - 7/4/2019
Jul. 3--Jenny Arnold fretted about her family's late June trip from their home in La Palma to Chicago.
The traveling party included Arnold and her husband Anthony, their daughters Alexis and Aubrey, their son Jax, and an aunt. They planned to fly out of John Wayne Airport.
The family had made long trips before but this would be the first since Jax, 4, endured a recent decline in his physical condition that left him unable to hold up the upper part of his body, including his head. A rare genetic disease had already robbed him of the ability to walk or talk.
Jenny Arnold worried about the logistics of the trip -- including how her son would be treated in the airport and on the plane. But she spotted something in an email from Regional Center of Orange County, which provides services and support to people with developmental disabilities. What she learned eased her mind and made travel more of an adventure than an ordeal.
The key, she said, was a service at John Wayne called "Helping Hands." She called the airport the night before they were slated to take off and, when they arrived the next morning, they were eased into a path geared for families and individuals with special needs.
At the curb, they were met by airport employees who helped the Arnolds carry their bags and check in. Next, a specific TSA agent helped get the Arnolds through security. The airport staff then walked them to their gate and helped arrange for the family to get priority boarding.
"What is usually a slow, stressful process was remarkably pleasant," Arnold said.
Tour ahead of time
It's not just for the Arnolds, or for other families who face extra stress while traveling. John Wayne operators figure Helping Hands -- now in place in time for one of the busiest travel weekends of the year -- is poised to play a crucial role in easing airport visits for children and adults with impaired cognitive abilities, and make it easier for all other passengers at the same time.
Air travel is stressful. Every traveler can experience moments of frustration -- if not full-on meltdowns -- during the maze that starts at curbside and usually ends in an airline seat.
But for a child on the autism spectrum, or an adult whose dementia might be triggered by sensory overload, the crowds, noise and bright lights inside an airport terminal can pose multiple challenges for the family and for other travelers. That's also true of going through the anxiety-laden security inspection process -- where emptying pockets, removing shoes, and possibly undergoing a full body scan or pat-down search, can be extra problematic.
John Wayne began offering the free Helping Hands service in November. Since then, the airport has provided assistance to more than 40 individuals or families.
The airport is eager to hear from any travelers who could benefit from Helping Hands -- especially parents.
"Word has kind of taken off," said Joel Aguilar, who runs volunteer and tour programs at John Wayne.
John Wayne is partnering with a number of organizations, including the county's Regional Center, UC Irvine Center for Autism, and the Orange County chapter of the Alzheimer's Association to help train airport personnel about the behaviors and sensitivities of people with developmental and cognitive disabilities and how to provide appropriate assistance.
Last week, a group from the Regional Center held a Helping Hands training session inside the airport's Emergency Operations Center. About 50 airport workers -- including staff from operations, customer relations and facilities, volunteers and airport ambassadors, and representatives of Sierra Aviation Group, which provides wheelchair assistance and other support -- turned out for the class.
The focus was on assisting passengers with intellectual disabilities, such as autism. Dr. Peter Himber, Regional Center medical director, was joined by psychologists Sara Bollens and Kyle Pontius, who has a grown son with autism.
They talked about autistic behaviors and offered such practical tips as observing body language, being patient, and listening more intently. They suggested escorting a family to the head of the security line, if possible, and to recommend that the family seek priority boarding. They also offered a tip: if tight space is a trigger, the family should request bulkhead seating.
Ruben Cruz, a maintenance worker at John Wayne, found the session helpful. Airport staff in attendance had come voluntarily, but Cruz, who has five grown children, suggested Helping Hands should be part of everyone's job description.
"This should be mandatory," Cruz said. "You should have to connect with people."
'Make the phone call'
For the Arnolds, the Helping Hands experience reduced their stress considerably.
"We didn't have to think about asking them to do anything for us," Jenny Arnold said. "They intuitively knew how to be helpful."
Her son Jax suffers from a rare disease called leukodystrophy -- or Vanishing White Matter Disease -- which attacks his brain. There is no cure, but the Arnolds were on their way to Chicago for the United Leukodystrophy Foundation's annual medical conference last week. Jax was in a stroller and the family was toting a ton of luggage.
Arnold recommends other families take advantage of Helping Hands.
"My advice to other parents would be just make the phone call and do it," she said. "If they are not helpful, you can send them away. If they are helpful, you can use the extra hands."
How it works
Travelers with disabilities, or their families, can be hooked up with airport staff or volunteer trained in the Helping Hands protocol by calling the airport before they travel, or from any courtesy phone inside the terminal. Travelers also can request assistance at the information booth on the lower level of Terminal B, near baggage claim.
The help, offered daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., can include:
-- An advance tour to help travelers become familiar with airport procedure -- Personal guidance through arrival, check-in, security and boarding -- Special help at security checkpoints through the TSA Cares helpline, which is available for all travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances
To find out more about Helping Hands, call 949-252-5200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Regional Center Orange County also has an updated Recreation Resource Guide available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese that includes tips on airport travel at rcocdd.com (under the Recreation section of the Resources tab).
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