Watson Alum Overcomes Fear to Become a Future Pilot


Many children dream of becoming a pilot at some point during their childhood, but for Tyler Kefalos, a former student at the Watson Institute LEAP Preschool, that dream is now becoming a reality. 

At the Watson institute, our educators equip students with special needs with the skills and mechanisms to overcome obstacles throughout their lives. As a child with autism spectrum disorder, Tyler suffered from anxiety, with a particular fear of heights and flying. In his early years, he attended the Watson Institute LEAP Preschool, an inclusive program that focuses on enhancing the social and developmental skills of children with autism through interaction with typically-developing peers in the classroom.

His involvement in early intervention programming, like LEAP, and the availability of behavioral health therapy services helped Tyler manage his anxiety through the years. His mother, Heather, recalls a social story written by a Watson Institute special education consultant about getting on a plane. This story inspired Tyler to face his fear of boarding and flying in a plane.

During a family vacation in Florida one summer, Tyler and his grandfather drove three hours to a nearby airport to face his fear and fly in an airplane.

“Once he got off the ground, it sealed the deal – he was hooked,” said mom Heather.  Motivated by that experience, Tyler later took flying lessons. “At two years old, I never would have dreamed this would have been possible,” Heather said.

Utilizing Therapy Skills to Overcome Anxiety

After his first flight, Heather discovered that Tyler utilized strategies he learned in therapy at the Watson Institute to ease his anxiety. It was his use of self-talk and his recollection of the social story about boarding a plane that enabled him take to the skies that day with his grandfather.

“I feel that all of his early interventions helped him overcome his fears and gave him the skills needed to cope with the obstacles throughout his lifetime. He continues to use these skills in his daily life,” said Heather.

Since that day, Tyler has been focused on his goal of becoming a commercial pilot. Tyler graduated this past June from Redeemer Lutheran High School. During his senior year, he was dual-enrolled at Redeemer and the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC)’s South campus.

During that time, he accumulated about 4-5 hours of flying time at the Westmoreland County Airport, and was eventually connected to the Allegheny County Airport, as well as the program at CCAC, where he excelled in his flight classes.

To become a commercial pilot, Tyler will continue at CCAC for two years.  Larger airlines require a bachelor’s degree, so he will likely be selecting a school in the future to continue on, leaning toward a school in Florida.

We look forward to hearing about the many places Tyler’s journey takes him, and are happy to have provided a firm educational foundation for him to achieve great success.

Learn more about the Watson Institute LEAP Preschool program and see if outpatient behavioral health therapy could benefit your child.