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Andrea in uniformWhen doctors diagnosed her son with autism four years ago, Delta Captain Andrea Ratfield felt her heart sink immediately. Little did she know at the time, autism was actually a blessing in disguise, and her son would help her learn more about happiness than she ever expected.

Inspired by her son’s condition, Ratfield became involved in the Navigating Autism familiarization tours at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport almost two years ago. During these tours, Ratfield volunteers her time, alongside many other Delta and airport employees, to help children and young adults with autism address their fears and uncertainties about the air travel experience.

Delta News Network recently talked with Ratfield about her passion for raising awareness, her role in helping others and her personal experience with autism.

Delta News Network: What does Autism Awareness Month mean to you?

Andrea Ratfield: It’s a month to help give back to everyone that has autism, and it’s a great time to help people understand more about autism. When people think of autism, negativity usually encompasses that word. They get scared. Yes, autism is extremely challenging – it’s probably been the hardest journey of my life – but it has been the most beautiful journey, too.

DNN: As a parent of a child with autism, what are some challenges you’ve faced? What have those challenges helped you learn?

AR: At two-and-a-half years, my oldest son Hunter was medically and educationally diagnosed with autism… When you hear that, your heart just goes into the pits and you have no idea what it means. You just start sprinting on a never-ending marathon trying to help your child.

But, there’s a simplicity, innocence and peace within a child that has autism that is rare to see unless you’re a parent of one of those children. There’s a beauty that you find in life; other things don’t matter.  You get judged a lot, so you learn to grow a tougher skin. It’s a blessing that so many people strive to find their entire life and it’s quickly discovered when something like this happens.

DNN: How do you respond others who may not know about autism?

AR: Initially when you’re starting the journey [with autism], there can be lots of negative emotions including guilt, sadness, anger and embarrassment. There’s a concern about what other people are thinking when your child is having a full meltdown in the store. As you grow in the journey, you realize you need to take care of your child first and not worry about what others may think.  Your emotions evolve and you start seeing the positive sides in all situations.  And most importantly, it’s a great time to educate someone about autism.

Now, I ignore the looks. If someone ever says anything, I use it as an opportunity to educate and I try to do so with grace and communication.

DNN: How do the familiarization tours you participate in through Navigating Autism help travelers with autism? Why do you think the tours are so important?Andrea with cake

AR: We bring families in and give them a realistic view of the entire airport and travel experience to help ease the fear and anxiety for those traveling who have autism. We take them through TSA and teach them about security. We bring them on to an actual aircraft, make announcements and let them have a full tour of the airplane, from the lavatory to the flight deck. We also answer a multitude of questions... Families always leave feeling a 1,000 times better than when they came in.

People with autism are visual learners, so seeing is more important than hearing. The children have the opportunity to see, feel, hear and touch, and they can take that visual memory they have created and move it forward to an actual flight.

DNN: Do you have a particular memory that stands out in your mind of someone you’ve worked with?

AR: Yes, there was a 45-year-old gentleman with autism traveling to the west coast from Minneapolis. It was his first time traveling by himself and his stepmother was clearly nervous, so I took some extra time with the both of them after the tour.  We spent a good half-an-hour talking. I answered all the questions they had and let him know what he could expect [on board] and also helped facilitate additional services so that he had assistance throughout his flight to ensure his trip was successful

During those thirty minutes, the slow understanding and peace that came over him was a beautiful thing to watch unfold. By the end of it, his stepmother was crying out of joy, and I was crying right along with her. Hugs were given, and I gave her my personal number just so she could let me know how it went. I heard from her that it went wonderfully – it worked out so much better than she could have hoped for.

DNN: What do you want others to know about autism?

AR: People hear autism and think it’s the most terrible diagnosis ever. They think of grief, sadness exhaustion, anger, hopelessness and anxiety. They think all of those things go hand-in-hand with the condition.

I want them to know there is actually an abundance of grace and hope, love and acceptance, happiness and support – things that wouldn’t have been a part of my life if it hadn’t been for autism.  I want people to know autism may be a tough journey, but in the end, autism is in fact true beauty.

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