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29.03.2018 / Announcements

BOARDING PASS TO AUTISM

An educational programme run by the Onassis Foundation which helps children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) familiarize themselves with the procedures involved in air travel.

Have you ever wondered how easy or difficult it is for a child with autism to cope with the various procedures involved in travelling by air? What having to process the multitude of sensory stimuli with which they are bombarded in an airport feels like? Do you know how you could help if you found yourself next to a child or adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder and they reacted in an intense and unexpected way brought on by airport-related stress?

For a child or adult with ASD, air travel isn't always about recreation or relaxation, as both children and adults are often required to travel long distances for crucial treatment. Unfortunately, the stressful nature of air travel (the electronic arrivals and departures boards, the noise, the constant movement from one place to another, the waiting and delays, the take-off and landing procedures, possible in-flight turbulence etc.) very often mean these vital trips cannot be made. It is no surprise that parents of children with ASD are hesitant about choosing to travel by air. The fact that roughly 1 in 68 children in the general population are currently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum makes this an issue that impacts on a lot of people. Indeed, given that our approach to autism is both a reflection of our culture and our education as individuals, it is ultimately relevant to us all.

Intent on enabling children with ASD to spread their wings and prepare to fly, the Onassis Foundation has created an innovative educational programme, Boarding Pass to Autism, which consists of the following elements: 1) an air procedures simulation for children with autism, 2) an educational resource for therapists and parents of children with ASD which consists of social stories, 3) a training course delivered to staff at Athens International Airport, and 4) a leaflet created to raise air travellers' awareness of autism.

The educational programme was created by the Onassis Foundation in association with Athens International Airport under the academic aegis of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and with the generous support of AEGEAN. The programme's two academic leads are Dr Aggeliki Gena, a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Athens University, and Dr Katingo Hadjipateras-Giannoulis, a Clinical Psychologist and Affiliate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. The programme was presented in detail at a scheduled Press Conference held in the Media Centre at Athens International Airport on Thursday 29 March 2018.

1) ON APRIL 2, INTERNATIONAL AUTISM DAY, CHILDREN WITH ASD WILL SPREAD THEIR WINGS AND PREPARE TO FLY!
It all started with an open call for participation issued by the Onassis Foundation. The call brought together a group of children who, along with their therapists and parents, set about preparing themselves for air travel by means of an integrated desensitization programme. The programme will culminate on Monday 2 April, World Autism Awareness Day, with the children visiting Athens International Airport, along with their parents and therapists, for an air procedures simulation. The simulation will begin at the entrance to the Departure terminal and include all the stages involved in preparing to fly. The 30 or so participants will end up aboard an AEGEAN aeroplane where everyone—children, parents and therapists—will follow the prescribed procedures and safety instructions that precede take-off. The air procedures simulation gives children and teenagers with autism and their families an opportunity to familiarize and prepare themselves for the various procedures involved in air travel (the security and baggage check etc.) and with the multiple stimuli (from the electronic departure and arrivals boards to public announcements and airport signage). However, the April 2 simulation marks a beginning not an end as the innovative handbook we created for the programme will continue to provide parents and therapists of children with autism with a unique educational resource in the years to come.

2) SOCIAL STORIES HANDBOOK A GROUND-BREAKING EDUCATIONAL RESOURCE FOR PARENTS AND THERAPISTS
The Boarding Pass to Autism programme also included the creation of an innovative educational handbook consisting of social stories (Gray, 1991) which could become an important tool in the hands of therapists and parents around Greece. The stories were created by the Onassis Foundation under the academic aegis of Athens University.

What are social stories?

They are short predominantly visual stories which present specific scenarios to enable people with autism develop and improve their social understanding. They depict descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.
Using photographs and/or other visual information, Social Stories help improve the behaviour of children by making novel social situations more manageable and predictable. This in turn will enable them to confront challenging social situations and will reduce any potential anxiety and stress.

The handbook is available in electronic form on both the Onassis Foundation website (www.onassis.org) and the Athens International Airport portal (www.aia.gr). Anyone with an interest in the material can download it and adapt it to the needs of individual children.

3) TRAINING SEMINARS FOR ATHENS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT STAFF
The programme also included training for both Athens International Airport (via the various service providers) and AEGEAN staff in autism-related issues and the obstacles autism can create for children with ASD and their parents, particularly in the airport. A seminar was run on four occasions, allowing 200 members of staff whose positions put them in direct daily contact with travellers at Eleftherios Venizelos to receive special training. At the seminars, Ms Gena and her associates informed the staff about autism and its specific features. The participants were briefed on the signs that can help them recognize travellers with ASD, and received useful advice on how to identify and deal with ASD-related challenges in the future.

4) TRAVELLING ALONGSIDE AUTISM: A LEAFLET WE SHOULD ALL READ
The final element of the 'Boarding pass to autism educational programme is another innovation: the creation of an informational booklet for all travellers. The booklet, which you can find at Athens International Airport (AIA) and in electronic form on the official sites of both the Onassis Foundation and the AIA, provides information on autism and on the obstacles faced by children with ASD. It also provides information on the ways in which you yourself could help make air travel easier for autistic children both in the airport and aboard their flight. The initiative seeks to release the potential of these children while raising public awareness of ASD.

A PRESS CONFERENCE: TWO EXPERIENTIAL GAMES
These initiatives were presented in detail at a scheduled Press Conference held in the Media Centre at Athens International Airport on Thursday 29 March 2018.

The Chairman of the Board of Directors of AIA, Mr. Dimitris Dimitriou, expressed to the Onassis Foundation his warm appreciation for the specific initiative -as well as for the whole range of programmes initiated by the Foundation across a wide range of initiatives and actions with the ultimate goal to substantially contribute to the wider society, and stressed during his address: “This action taking place today in the Athens International Airport premises, acknowledges the new social role of key transport infrastructure companies in order to raise awareness for basic social principles, recognizing, at the same time, the essential mission of foundations based on the values of equality, such as equal access of all citizens in public transport. In this spirit, today, the institutions and the companies that joined forces and worked together as a team with distinct roles, focused on safeguarding the right of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to experience stress-free air travel. Furthermore, all of us, parents, therapists and certainly all airport employees should undertake and diligently fulfil the obligation to constantly create the appropriate and necessary conditions to serve this purpose.”

He was followed by the AIA's CEO, Yiannis Paraschis, who delivered his message on behalf of the airport, adding: “On this day of special importance for Athens International Airport, when we are celebrating 17 years since the first day of our operations on March 29th, 2001, we have the opportunity to present a truly special and unique initiative, the “Boarding Pass for Autism” programme. Athens International Airport eagerly responded to the call of the Onassis Foundation for the implementation of this invaluable initiative, aiming to offer children diagnosed with ASD their own “Boarding Pass” before flying. It is our profound wish to offer to this special group of little passengers a pleasant and stress-free air-travel experience and we pledge to fully support our young travellers, in our continuous effort to address their needs in the best possible way.”

Ms Afroditi Panagiotakou, the Director of Culture of the Onassis Foundation, the initiator of the Boarding Pass to Autism programme, noted among other things that: While we are fully prepared for the new Boarding Pass to Autism programme to take off, we remain firmly grounded in the values which have got the Onassis Foundation where it is today: the value of an open, discrimination-free society and the value of equal access to education, culture and health. The new educational programme is the latest addition to a Special Education tradition which began in 1978 and has already produced important and well-loved programmes like Music loves autism, which has now travelled on 33 occasions to cities around Greece. Boarding Pass to Autism is the product of the same know-how, the same philosophy and sensitivity, that marks every one of the Onassis Foundation's Special Education activities. We believe that the programme will help familiarize autistic children and teenagers and their families with the procedures involved in air travel without subjecting them to the stress these procedures can cause. So let us bring our logic and our sensitivity to bear and realize that we all belong to the same special group of citizens who both want and work towards an equitable society.

Dimitrios Gerogiannis, the Managing Director of AEGEAN, had this to say: We are especially pleased to have been given this chance to take part in the 'Air procedures simulation for children with autism and other mental disorders'. We accepted the invitation on the spot, and were delighted to provide a plane for the programme's needs. Members of our cabin and ground staff have also participated in special training sessions so they could welcome the children in the best possible way. It is our dear wish that the programme proves a total success and that the children with ASD who take part will truly succeed in spreading their wings and enjoying stress-free preparations for flying.

The presentations by Ms Christina Panagiotakou, Head of Educational Programmes at the Onassis Foundation, and Dr Aggeliki Gena, the programme's academic lead, sought to explain the technical and academic aspects of the programme and formed the centrepiece of the Press Conference.

Ms Christina Panagiotakou noted, among other things, that: It took numerous individuals and institutions working together to make the Boarding Pass to Autism educational programme a reality. From the start, the various contributors were linked by their belief in this innovative concept. Having embraced the Onassis Foundation programme, they worked hard to overcome the various difficulties we encountered and implement the action. We dearly hope that the Social Stories educational resource and the leaflet for travellers, the air procedures simulation and the staff training seminars, will all help raise awareness of issues relating to autism.

Dr Gena analyzed the axes of the programme, noting among other things that: It is a significant advantage that the Boarding Pass to Autism programme takes an ecosystemic approach to people with ASD, meaning it helps the child, educates the parents and trains the highly willing airport staff while simultaneously raising the awareness of the average traveller (through the leaflet) and of the therapists who would like to use the new educational resource we have created to desensitize children with ASD to the anxiety they may feel about airports and flying.

The journalists who attended the press conference were treated to a new and unique experience when Dr Gena invited them to take part in two intensely hands-on games. In the first game, having been told to sit back-to-back with their neighbours, the participants were asked to try and communicate with each other. This exercise gave us a tiny insight into some of the challenges people with ASD encounter on a daily basis, as they often seek to communicate without eye contact. In the second, having closed their eyes, the participants listened to an audio clip in which someone with autism describes the experience of a job interview from their point of view. Once again, the game offered insights into the difficulties people with autism encounter in their everyday lives. Seeing the world through another's eyes allows us to feel how they feel and offers us insights into the many obstacles they have to overcome. It's a matter of culture, a matter of education.


The Onassis Foundation and Special Education

In the field of Special Education, educational programmes like the popular musical workshop Music loves autism, the Music and Autism go great together workshop which combines music with the visual arts, and the more recent The art of recycling workshop, which promotes the inclusion of children both with and without disabilities and will be held over five Saturdays this April, are just some of the many activities run by the Onassis Foundation in this most sensitive and important area. In the sphere of Special Education, the Onassis Foundation has been supporting special schools and integration programmes for decades with donations of books, equipment and teaching aids to help the educators in their efforts. Moreover, the Scholarships programme which the Foundation has been running since 1978 includes post-graduate studies and doctoral research in the area of Special Education.
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