Family’s year-long journey with TSA South Bend prepares autistic son to fly

Thursday, January 11, 2024
Mateo meets the flight crew. (Photo by Lisa DelPrete)

23-year-old Mateo DelPrete hadn’t flown on an airplane since he was a baby. His parents, though, had big plans for a family trip to visit two of Mateo’s brothers in Texas.

It was a journey that couldn’t happen overnight. Mom and Dad – Vince and Lisa DelPrete – wanted to spend time preparing Mateo for the big flight.

TSO Adrienne Long, TSM Armand Collins and SBN Communications Coordinator Aaliyah McKinney (SBN photo)
TSO Adrienne Long, TSM Armand Collins and SBN Communications Coordinator Aaliyah McKinney (SBN photo)

Mateo has autism, and his parents feared he might be afraid to fly, so they developed a plan.

“I think my biggest fear with Mateo was simply that since he really doesn’t talk, what if he got scared?” Lisa asked. “What if he wanted to walk around the airplane? What if all the sounds were too much? What if he felt uncomfortable and couldn’t tell us?”

In the fall of 2022, Lisa reached out to the TSA team at northern Indiana’s South Bend International Airport (SBN) to generate a strategy.

“TSA Manager Armand Collins told me about a few programs SBN has and that if we wanted to visit the airport with Mateo, Armand would be glad to show Mateo around,” recalled Lisa. “We made it happen. Armand had already talked with staff, and they were attentive and gracious. They showed Mateo what it would be like to put his luggage on the belt. They showed him how we would walk through TSA security, and when we got to the gate area where he could actually see an airplane, he was all smiles! Mateo smiled the entire time!”

“We had conducted two Wings for Autism events and relied on our experience from the events,” said Collins. “To make the experience as real as possible, Vince, Lisa and Mateo arrived at the airport with luggage – checked and carry-on. I met with them and proceeded to the airlines counter where they could emulate the check-in process, even checking a bag. We then proceeded through security and into the gate area where we practiced waiting for departure.”

The DelPretes returned to the airport later last fall and practiced the entire process again. This time, though, they boarded an aircraft for a few minutes so Mateo could get the feeling of being inside a plane.

It took the DelPretes nearly another six months before they figured out a good time to travel to Texas, but Mateo was ready to make it a successful journey, thanks to his strong will, his family’s preparation and close collaboration with TSA and South Bend International Airport staff.

“In August 2023, we met again with Mateo and his parents at the airport, doing one last practice before their scheduled trip,” Collins said. “Mateo didn’t miss a stroke!! He remembered everything and went through the entire process smoothly.”

Mateo and his parents prepare to board their flight. (Photo by Armand Collins)
Mateo and his parents prepare to board their flight. (Photo by Armand Collins)

Collins said Mateo was somewhat shy and distant during his first visits, but by his third visit, he remembered the process and overcame any apprehensions.

“That was when he gave me his first super powerful high five upon seeing me,” Collins exclaimed.

Finally, it was time for the big day – the flight to Texas! Due to the tremendous planning and collaboration between the DelPretes and TSA SBN, the trip went off without a hitch.

“Because we talked about it for months, showed Mateo videos of airplanes, told him where we were going, and since he was already familiar with the airport, it was a piece of cake,” said Lisa. “Mateo understands what is going on around him. When he knows he isn’t minimized or being talked about, but rather included and communicated to, he loves literally going anywhere.”

Collins called it one of the most rewarding experiences in his over 21 years with TSA.

Mateo enjoys the look outside his plane’s window. (Photo by Lisa DelPrete)
Mateo enjoys the look outside his plane’s window. (Photo by Lisa DelPrete)

“To see the moment when the family realized the possibility they could travel anywhere with their son, Mateo, and witnessing when they actually boarded a live flight to Texas to visit his siblings was indescribable,” Collins said.

With the family’s permission and Collins’ assistance, SBN Marketing and Communications Coordinator Aaliyah McKinney documented the DelPretes’ experience from the moment they arrived and visited the ticket counter until they departed, sharing their heartfelt story on the airport’s social media channels.

“TSA led the charge on this initiative and did a phenomenal job getting Mateo acquainted with the airport and its features over the past year,” said McKinney. “I am thrilled Mateo and his family got to experience his first flight at SBN and that they had such an optimistic experience. This makes me very excited for their future travel plans. It’s even more heartwarming knowing our TSA team here at SBN and our other partners helped create that positive experience in such a welcoming environment.”

McKinney said the airport and TSA work closely to ensure the passenger experience is a good one.

“The very first time we walked into the airport, and Mateo was greeted like everybody else, he was comfortable and knew it was a safe place to be,” Lisa emphasized. “The TSA team talked to him, laughed with him, let him communicate to them in his way, and they did not bat an eye. We are truly blessed by the staff at SBN!”

Collins responded, “At SBN, we all truly believe we are one team. Together, with our stakeholders, we all make the airport a success.”

By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs