Kelowna airport hosts accessibility event

Canucks Autism Network event brings families together to help deal with air travel

By Mark Dreger

For parents like Cheryl Poff and her five-year-old son Charlie, traveling with children with autism can be challenging, but B.C. airports are trying to make things easier.

The Canucks Autism Network (CAN) and Kelowna International Airport (YLW) hosted the first-ever YLW Accessibility Tour Sunday for families living with autism. The “I CAN Fly” tour takes families through the entire pre-flight process, including entering the airport, waiting in line, passing through security, and boarding a plane.

“He’s been doing really well,” Poff told the Capital News while holding her son. “He’s going to be starting kindergarten next year, but we’re really happy to be involved with a lot of things that CAN brings to the Okanagan.”

Charlie was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age two-and-a-half and has been receiving intervention ever since.

After spending the last four years at the Vancouver International Airport, CAN brought the event to YLW—Canada’s 11th busiest airport—to bring the service to other families across the province.

“We have 77 individuals coming through the airport today, which is huge,” said Kayla Ungaro, regional coordinator with CAN, “so it’s an exciting time for us to be able to provide something like this.” Having a child with autism adds additional challenges when it comes to travel. It’s been a year and a half since Charlie last flew in a plane, but with his increased intellect and language skills, Poff appreciates that Charlie will be able to get the practice at an older age to help make future travels easier.

“Kids with autism thrive on routine and knowing what’s happening,” Poff said, “and unfortunately because we don’t get to fly often—we just don’t have that luxury or that lifestyle—they don’t really get to practice it, so it’s meaningful for us to be able to participate in activities like this that kind of expose them as much as we can to these little life events.”

Poff does not have any major travel plans ready yet for Charlie, but hopes to take him to see family in Manitoba in the spring and then perhaps a bigger trip at a later date.

“Travel is often quite a barrier for many of our families,” Ungaro said. “There’s the unfamiliarity with an airport, with travel, there is so many sensitivities that many of these individuals experience, so by being able to provide them with resources and kind of the opportunity to go through and practice what it’s like to be able to go through the process of checking in and boarding a plane, it just gives them the opportunity to be that much more comfortable and hopefully successful with travel in the future.”

With having a child dealing with autism, parents like Poff enjoy CAN’s events that help their children further navigate the world around them.

“I think we’re just happy to have the opportunity to participate in things like this that make these unpredictable events a little bit less stressful for us and a little bit easier for our kids,” Poff said. “Anytime CAN brings something to the Okanagan that brings the community together, we try to participate because there’s usually something that’s going to benefit our children and us as parents to learn how to go through these life events. We’re just really thankful to have such a good organization helping us and helping our children. We just feel really lucky.”

The Canucks Autism Network is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing year-round sports and recreation programs for individuals and families living with autism while raising autism awareness and providing training opportunities in communities across British Columbia.

The event was possible in collaboration with WestJet, YLW, and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).

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