Page 1 of 1 [ 1 post ] 


User avatar

Joined: 25 Aug 2013
Age: 66
Gender: Male
Posts: 32,864
Location: Long Island, New York

14 Mar 2023, 11:07 am

Hayden is flying around Australia to show others living with autism that the sky's the limit

Hayden McDonald didn't always feel like the world was built for him. But from thousands of feet above, life makes perfect sense.

"It's a disconnect from the world, it's my escape," he says.

When Hayden was just a boy, his grandfather would take him flying across the Nullarbor and Flinders Ranges, introducing him to a world beyond one he'd ever known.

It inspired a love for aviation that has seen him travel thousands of kilometres across the rocky outcrops and salt lakes of WA's Goldfields-Esperance region on his own.

There's something about being up there that gives you a different perspective, he says. You don't "hear all the bad stuff in the world".

After gaining his recreational pilot's certificate at 17, Hayden began the process of applying to become a professional pilot on his final day of high school.

Before long, an email arrived in his inbox: intention to refuse medical.

"I quote: 'This is because your autism spectrum disorder represents unacceptable risk to aeronautical navigation,'" he says.

Faced with no opportunities, Hayden decided to make his own, sparking a dream to fly solo around Australia to show others that the sky's the limit.

With one of the lowest population densities to be found anywhere, the 21-year-old didn't see a lot of people like him growing up in Esperance.

Sometimes, it felt as thought people didn't really know where Hayden fit into the puzzle. Over time, neither did he.

While Western Australia's south coast is known around the world for its white sands, the fineness of the beach can cause him to have sensory overload.

Soaring above, Hayden is able to experience it in all its glory.
Hayden currently holds a Recreational Pilot Certificate, which requires the same medical standards as driving a car, and allows him to fly a one or two-seat recreational plane.

To obtain a pilot's licence, though — a prerequisite to flying privately — he needs to obtain a Class 2 medical certificate, which entails more thorough testing.

The Civil Aviation and Safety Authority, which is unable to comment on individual cases, is responsible for overseeing pilot licences in Australia.

It does not have specific medical guidelines regarding autism, but says that “associated information can be found under our guidelines for ADHD”.

According to Hayden, he had "no problem" providing the necessary medical documentation or undertaking a physical. Rather, he believes issues started to arise during the psychiatric component of the examination.

Knowing his dream would hinge on a passing mark, he says, he found himself increasingly uncomfortable with the process and unable to follow some of the directions given to him, something he attributes to a "neurotypical approach" to testing.

"It pretty much deals with your personal skills and other stuff, but the problem with that is it's based on your performance on the day," he says.

"But having people judge me when it's not on my ability [to fly], that's where I don't feel comfortable."

In a statement, CASA said that "having autism is not an automatic exclusion to gaining a pilot’s licence and all cases are reviewed accordingly".

"All medical decisions made by CASA can be reconsidered on request by the applicant and we can also organise a meeting with our clinical case conference panel," it added.

In Hayden's case, having already spent "hundreds of hundreds of dollars" to obtain the necessary medical documentation and testing without any guarantee of success, he decided not to appeal the outcome.

Instead, he wants to draw attention to the nuances of autism and how it presents, to foster a greater understanding of the condition, both within the aviation sector and wider society.

He doesn't want CASA to compromise on safety, but he hopes it will develop a broader approach to neurodiverse applicants, to ensure they are assessed "on their ability, not their disability".

"If a pilot can actually fly to the standard that [CASA] sets for Recreational Aviation Australia, and has instructors and pilots backing them up, vouching for them being able to fly solo with no troubles whatsoever, why are they being declined?"

After receiving the intention to refuse medical notice, Hayden did what he knew best: he took to the skies.

Armed with a GoPro, he started Wings Without Barriers, a vlog dedicated to showing life and aviation on the spectrum.

There are two missions — one, to create understanding and acceptance about autism through education," he says.

"And two, to change the medical process without compromising aeronautical safety."

In his quest to challenge "assumptions about capability", the 21-year-old is set to solo circumnavigate regional Australia in September.

For Hayden, the journey is about more than a medical certificate; it's about being seen as a person, not "just a piece of paper".

Over six weeks, he plans to visit rural and remote communities across the country, where he'll speak to schools about life on the spectrum, and build an informal network of young regional pilots with autism.

I want to make a more neurodiverse-friendly Australia, because otherwise we're going to leave people behind."

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman