Saturday, November 10, 2012

Oh, the places you can go!

Orange Cafe at Night - 16"x20"
Acrylic on Canvas 2012

Oh, the places you can go……the world has been expanded for Jimmy Reagan.

Jimmy has excelled in Geography since he was young….memorizing the states, capitols and continents with great ease.  His art pieces are frequently named for places our family has travelled or places he would like to go.  In recently months when we ask him were he would like to travel, he starts big….China, Japan, France, Italy, Australia…..then quickly onto every state in the US.  Travelling by air to these places has never been an option for Jimmy. 

We have taken many trips to Montana by car. But, Jimmy had never been on a plane.  With 5 kids, flying was not our first choice for travel…too expensive and complicated.  Jimmy was 8 when the tragedy of 911 occurred.  After 911, flying with someone with autism just wasn’t something we would ever consider given all the difficulties of even getting on a plane.  When Jimmy was diagnosed with autism the incidence was 1 in 10,000 births.  In 2001, most people still believed that autism was rare. It wasn’t until 2003 that the U of Minnesota incidence study was published showing autism was present in 1 in 250 kids in Minnesota…..more reason not to fly as the public was not well educated on what autism was/is and how to best help families. So, at age 19, Jimmy had never been on an airplane until this week. 

Jimmy with AirTran pilot
 learning about the plane

Sometime last spring, I decided that we should try a short flight to someplace motivating for Jimmy.  Having recently been to the Art Institute of Chicago, I knew that they had a wonderful collection of impressionist and contemporary art….just the place for a motivating trip.  The flight would be short and my sister lives in Chicago….so, if we had problems, I had a back up plan.
Josh and Jimmy at the
Art Institute of Chicago

Jimmy has come such a long way with his health and accomplishments in art that flying for him would benefit him greatly….helping him grow as an artist and human being.  Autism is so isolating for both the person who has autism and their family.   With great hope for success, I started to plan for the trip….preparing Jimmy, me and Josh for all the what if’s for a first flight and walking the streets of a very busy city….both new experiences for Jimmy.

Josh and Jimmy in Chicago
We decided to fly on Southwest Airlines….their reputation and our personal experience for having friendly staff was important.  Flying out of Terminal 2 in Minneapolis (smaller airport) to Midway (smaller airport) in Chicago gave us a good chance for success.  Family friend, Angie MacDonald, works at Southwest.  I called her to ask if we could come to “practice” at the airport before our actual flight.  I had no idea what a fabulous experience would be in our future.

Jimmy in the cockpit of an AirTran plane
at Terminal 2 Minneapolis, Minnesota
Angie connected us with Metropolitan Airports Commissions staffer, Shelly Lopez.  Shelly called me to set up a tour/practice at Terminal 2 last Tuesday morning. On the phone, Shelly asked remarkably well informed questions: does Jimmy use an iPad to speak, how is he with touch, does noise bother him, etc…. I was impressed! Shelly met us in the parking lot. Took us to pick up a pass for security and brought us through security.  Much to our excitement, she took us to a gate where we met Mike Gregory.  Mike arranged for us to meet flight crew from Air Tran.  The flight crew brought us on board…Jimmy got to sit in the cockpit…what a treat.

Now you might think, how did we get such special treatment? Well, the good news is that it wasn’t special treatment. The Metropolitan Airports commission is working with Fraser and other community partners to help people with disabilities fly.  The program will be launched in January…Yippy!!!!!

As you might imagine, I was likely as anxious as Jimmy was about flying. I mentioned this to my sister last week.  She told me about a friend who was traveling with twins who had colic.  The family made small “treat” bags to give traveler who sat near them letting fellow travelers know that they were doing the best that they could under the circumstance and that they greatly appreciated their patience.  I thought this was a wonderful idea. So, I packaged up Jimmy’s note cards to take with us to Chicago.  We handed them out to people who helped us along the way. 

Rosie - 16"x20" Acrylic on Canvas 2012
I have always known that simple acts of kindness make a big difference.  It was never more evident to me than it was this week.  When people first meet Jimmy, they see his challenge to speak and often recognize his disability as autism.  This was the case with many we encountered in our travel to Chicago on Thursday and at our practice on Tuesday.  When we gave Jimmy’s note cards to those who helped us, the response was so rewarding and surprising. The shock at the quality of Jimmy’s artwork given his challenge was evident. The fact that someone said thank you to people who likely don’t hear it very often was remarkable. I feel like we changed  perspectives on Tuesday and Thursday.  Jimmy’s artwork has become a non-verbal means of changing the way people think about him and others in the spectrum…..the people we connected with on Tuesday and Thursday will see people with autism differently.  That wasn’t my plan…..just a great byproduct of a successful trip.  I am just so grateful that so many people were willing and happy to help us open up the world for Jimmy and our family.

Thanks to:

Angie MacDonald – Southwest Airlines
Shelly Lopez – Metropolitan Airports Commission
Mike Gregory – Southwest Airline

Flight to Chicago:
Captain:  Rob Nohrn
1st Officer: Brian Crockett
Flight Attendants:  Emily Scherzberg
Kristy Ramirez
Tina Henry

Flight Home:
Captain:  Kevin Sinibaldi
1st Oficer:  Kimberly Lane
Flight Attendants:
John Theuerkauf
Charles Kallick
Linda McQuaid