Hayden McDonald, an autistic advocate, wears a long-sleeve button-up shirt and a cap and looks out into the distance. Behind him is bright blue sky.
2 Jun

Q & A with Hayden McDonald, creator of Wings Without Barriers

This month, we caught up with Hayden McDonald, a young recreational pilot who is autistic will circumnavigate regional Australia solo this September. We spoke about his passion for flying, the challenges he’s encountered on his journey, and how his ‘Wings Without Barriers’ YouTube channel is helping him forge his own path.

Hayden, we’re very excited to hear that you’ll be circumnavigating regional Australia on your own this September! What excites you the most about this upcoming adventure and what are you doing to prepare?

Everything! Learning about everyone's experience in the regions with autism, the journey and being able to do my passion while growing as a person, as a pilot and as an activist. We just finished up on the planning stage and now we're trying to get the financial and places to speak at now which my mother, Fleur has done a great job doing and helping me to keep on track. We do butt heads (mainly me to her) but we move on and get stuff done.

My Papa and a former Ansett Australia pilot, (who wants to remain anonymous so I'll call him Mr Ansett), has been helping me with the aviation side of things because planning a flight on this scale is not easy. It's one thing to make a flight plan, but actually coming to terms with it is another thing. I'm so lucky to have a team who has experience in activism, business and aviation. I had to learn very quickly on how to pitch, deal with the media (including dealing with backlash and people misreading the story), create budgets, revise my flight skills and a lot more.

As a child, your grandfather would take you flying across the Nullarbor and Flinders Ranges. What did you most enjoy about this experience and how did it inspire you to want to fly planes on your own?

It was so different to me. Of course when you're a kid, every kid is interested in planes, fire trucks etc. However it stuck with me, even if I lost interest in it for a while. It was in my subconscious.I grew up in a household where my father was controlling and abusive towards me and my mother so it felt so freeing when I went with Papa. He even let me touch the yoke and “fly” his aircraft with strict supervision of course as it was as I quote “it's the pilots to fly the aircraft.” Which was understandable as it was a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza which is no low-hour pilot's aircraft. It was a very powerful and complex aircraft which I loved being around and Papa loved a lot. He sold it a few years ago sadly due him not flying as much due to chronic fatigue. I actually gave him an aircraft model of the Bonanza that he's quite protective of so he can remember his time with it. I just hope it's not enough for him to try to buy it back like he did before.

I knew if I wanted to keep flying when Papa gave up flying (which he stills does today at the time of typing this), I had to get my licence, which I have today. When I fly, it feels so free. I fly anywhere I want to and without being told what to or who you can or cannot be, I don't hear about bad news that goes on in the world and no one can hear you except other aircraft and Flightwatch.

What was the feeling of taking your first solo flight like?

I didn't allow myself to feel as I was too focused on flying on the aircraft which I now own, otherwise I would be distracted. But when I was on the ground after those solo circuits, I was happy I took a step closer to be able to fly without restrictions.

You’ve explained that when completing the examination for a pilot’s licence, you found the psychiatric part of the exam difficult due to the ‘neurotypical approach’ to the test’s directions and structure. How could this element of the exam be modified to better accommodate neurodivergent candidates?

I would like to note first before I answer this that the current pilot's licence I'm under (Recreational Pilot's Certificate) doesn't require a medical from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), and Recreational Aviation Australia (RAAus) is the governing body for RPC under CASA's approval. It only requires a driver's licence.

The problem and what I have seen and heard from other autistic pilots is that CASA sees ASD as one thing, but realistically it's not. It's called a spectrum for a reason. Autism affects us in different ways. I had parents contact me and mum worried that that their child can't fly because of my experience. CASA's model is so old and inflexible and it needs to be updated. As Dr Andrew Whitehouse said on ABC Perth Mornings regarding autism in schools, “We live in the 21st century with 20th century systems.” I think that comment applies here too.

What I think should change is that examinations should be more flexible and casual. The results are only showing what's happening on the day. Say if someone is under stress because this one test can decide their future, of course they're going to struggle because their judgement is clouded. It doesn't show that if they are flying, they are at their peak performance because it's their safe space. It doesn't show how they are when they live their day to day lives. Some autistic people will find a clinical environment unsettling and it makes it worse if your future relies on a piece of paper that you're not guaranteed they will get and it's very costly.

The reports also have a negative bias without saying how one can improve one's self. I understand that line would make some doctors and psychiatrists annoyed and will disagree but you have to see it from someone who has to deal with a lot of issues. I even found some reports I saw from my exams belittling at times.

You’ve written that you would like to see the aeronautical industry become more ‘neurodiverse-friendly’ without compromising on safety. How do you think this can be achieved?

It's actually already been done. You want to know how? It's because of RAAus and their RPC. You don't need a medical at all. So it means anyone can fly under their RPC as it's that accessible. The only downside is that it's a bit restrictive but RAAus are working with CASA to get some more flexibility.

However for CASA, that's a different story. If you want to get your private or commercial licence, you will need a class 2 medical for private operations and a class 1 for your commercial operations. They're strict, you have to jump through so many hoops if you have a condition and they're not really flexible. They even review autism cases under the ADHD guidelines.

When I found this out, I was furious. That confirmed my theory about the blanket ban. They do treat Autism as one entity. CASA NEEDS to make Autistic guidelines for autistic pilots and approach this with flexibility in mind. Autism and ADHD are two seperate things. They need to see the person behind the pages. They need to see the person behind the autistic mask because it's come to the point we cannot express ourselves openly during medicals because we are legally required to disclose being on the spectrum and pretty much opens up to you being labelled. Did I mention as well that you have to do these medicals every 12 months?

CASA are too set on the “what if's” when they should be focusing on “can they fly and do so safely to the standard that we set?”

That goes back to RAAus and moving up. The pilots already fly to the standard that RAAus and CASA set while self evaluating their health under the IMSAFE process (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Eating). So why make it so hard for RPC pilots who are autistic to move up? What about the pilots who fly for the airlines who aren't diagnosed?

See what I'm trying to get here? I'm not saying to get rid of medicals but to make them more inclusive and flexible. Because the message I got from CASA for the reason I was rejected was because I was autistic. That is borderline discriminatory right there.

CASA does have ways for you to contest medical decisions. You can request for your case to be heard at their Clinical Case Conference Panel or go down the legal route by going to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. However we shouldn't have to go down those routes just to get a document saying you're fit to fly. Plus if this turns into a legal battle, that's going to add costs and time to the process and again, it's not guaranteed you will get the decision overturned.

You’ve demonstrated a lot of resilience since this experience, having created your own YouTube channel and made plans to circumnavigate regional Australia solo. What advice would you give to other autistic young people about resilience and advocating for themselves?

My thought process after my emotions of anger, sadness and bitterness mostly moved on, The following thought entered my mind, “I have no opportunities so I'll have to make one.” There are so little opportunities for autistic adults for them to grow and live. So the advice I would give is make your own opportunities. Fight for what you want. Because we live in a world which isn't fully open to the neurodiverse. Some people use it against you when it's convenient.

However, if you explain to them how it affects you and they get disability awareness training for the workplace, things will get easier. We got a long way to go in terms of true equality but if we keep on talking and keep pushing for acceptance and understanding, we can make future generations have an easier and more fulfilling life because if we don't, we will get left behind or worse, be treated we are a disease and people will end up listening to the bad sources of information.

Your YouTube channel Wings Without Barriers aims to raise awareness of autism through education and encourage changes to the medical process of assessing pilots. What is the most rewarding part of making videos for your channel?

The most rewarding part is I get to share both my passion and actually have an autistic voice explaining autism. Not from someone who isn't autistic as there are subjects that a neurotypical cannot explain. Now, I don't mean to discredit all the research that has been done but there's things that a lab cannot do. One of them is how society perceives us and the injustice we deal with. Not to mention all the misinformation that has been spread about autism. I've always wanted to do content creation since I was a kid and I thought vlogging was the best way for me. It's really important to get an autistic point of view, especially now that we are trying to shift to a support basis rather than trying to cure and fix basis and that's what I want to do.

And finally, what do you hope to learn and achieve from your upcoming solo adventure?

This might be surprising for most people, but I want to understand autism better. I grew up in a rural area so I want to learn more and the best way for me to learn is out in the field. I may be a teacher but sometimes the teacher needs to become the student. I can only explain and share my experience with autism. Autism is a very complex subject and if we all can learn it including myself, I think it will create the basis for a neurodiverse friendly Australia. An Australia where businesses have a neurodiverse workforce in jobs other than in minimum/low paying jobs. An Australia where autistic people don't have to mask how they are and be able to express themselves freely. An Australia where neurodiverse people aren't bullied, harassed or judged for who they are. Because we have schools, businesses and the general public don't know how to approach or they take the neurotypical approach and are asking why it's not working.

You can say this is my way of fighting CASA for my medical but also protesting the way the medical process deals with autistic pilots. I understand that CASA has a responsibility to protect the public but as I mentioned before, they are too set in their ways and need to modernise their process. So I hope this will put pressure on them to change and pave a way for autistic pilots to go commercial without worrying that they will have a career. Being a pilot suits an autistic person as it's structured, has routines and a lot more.

We also had parents who live in remote areas of Australia asking for help because they have no resources to help so I will be focusing on areas outside the cities. I want to help them face to face because regional, rural and remote areas internet infrastructure is really poor and sometimes video calls are useless. This could also expand into an idea I have been thinking of for a while. I wish for them to raise their kids so that they don't think of them as a burden, but they see, hear, taste, feel and smell the world differently and they have challenges that they will have to deal with everyday.

To follow Hayden’s journey around regional Australia and stay up to date with his latest adventures, subscribe to the Wings Without Barriers YouTube channel and follow him on Instagram.

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