Northern Ireland

Belfast City Airport gives children with autism their first-ever airport experience

walking to the plane
Image caption Many of the children were nervous about getting on a plane for the first time

For so many families, getting through an airport to go on holiday can be a very stressful experience.

But for families who have a child with autism, the bright lights, loud noises and unfamiliar settings can be too much to take, meaning that many of them simply cannot go abroad.

On Sunday, however, ten autistic children and their relatives were invited to Belfast City Airport for a trial-run through security, as well as getting on a plane, in preparation for their first-ever overseas trips later this year.

The event was organised by Parents' Education as Autism Therapists (PEAT), a Northern Ireland-based group that is dedicated to helping autistic children.

Nicola Booth, PEAT's lead behaviour analyst, said the idea came about during discussions with parents.

Image caption Chris and his nephew, Lucas, who couldn't wait to get on the plane and even got a souvenir to take home

'Sensory issues'

"A lot of parents were saying airport travel is very difficult for them to even think about," she said.

"So with our partner at Queen's University Belfast, the centre for behaviour analysis, we made videos filmed from the perspective of an eight to 10-year-old child, right through from arriving at an airport to what happens on the plane for the children to watch.

"We needed a practical aspect as well, and thankfully George Best City Airport gave us permission for the kids to experience it all."

Nicola said many of the families have never been able to go on holiday because of fears about their children might react.

"We know what happens when we get on a plane, but for some of the kids with sensory issues, even the weight of the seatbelt can be too much for them," she said.

"We also have parents who take separate holidays, where one parent stays at home with the child and the other parent takes a break and then they swap.

"That's not what we want - we want our kids and their families to go and do what other families are able to."

Image caption Eithne McVerry's seven-year-old grandson, Neil, gives the thumbs-up for his first airport experience

'Take it for granted'

Eithne McVerry and her seven-year-old grandson, Neil, took part in the experience.

"He'd never been on a plane before, and his parents are getting married in June so we're hoping he'll be fine for then," she said.

"He was worried it was going to be noisy, but he came through security well. He really enjoyed running up and down the plane and seeing the cockpit as well.

"A lot of people do take it for granted getting to go on holiday, they don't realise what other parents go through."

'Disneyland Paris'

Jenny, who is planning her family's first holiday this summer, said her five-year-old daughter, Lucy, enjoyed the day.

"Recently Lucy's been quite nervous about mechanical noises, like trains and even lawnmowers, so we thought this would be a good opportunity," Jenny said.

"We have a trip booked to Disneyland Paris, which isn't a long flight, but if she doesn't want to go we'll have to go home and that's that, but so far, so good."

Image caption After the children had a chance to explore the plane and sit in the cockpit, their airport experience came to an end
Image caption Although their plane did not actually take off, they got to watch another plane flying up into the air

'Tomorrow'

Although some of the children were a little agitated getting on and off the plane, there were smiles all round as they headed home with an airport goodie bag.

Fun over for these first-time flyers, for now at least, but what was the verdict? Did the children enjoy it and more importantly, will they want to do it again?

"He wants to come back again tomorrow so I think that says it all," Eithne told me, as Neil smiled and gave a massive two-thumbs-up.

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