By bobb |
young man and dog squatting in front of a light aircraft

Bridget Judd

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.

Hayden McDonald takes off in a light aircraft: he feels at home when he's flying (Gfycat)

"Being on the autistic spectrum, life is a little bit difficult, so it's a way for me to be myself without anyone trying to tell me who I am."

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".

Hayden in the pilot's seat flying over WA: he fell in love with aviation from an early age(Gfycat)

But far from just a reprieve from the day-to-day, flying has come to represent something more.

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.

"Can you imagine how it felt to be labelled like that?"

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.

'It's a reminder of why I fly'

Renowned for its pristine beaches and undulating bays, the Esperance region is a sight to behold.

There's a waypoint Hayden likes to go when he's flying north to Kalgoorlie; the country around Norseman "is gorgeous on a summer's day".

"The red dots, the whites in salt lakes, the blue sky," he says. "It's a reminder of why I fly."

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.

But in the pilot's seat of a Jabiru J-120, he found his purpose and potential in more ways than one.

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.

"That coastline between Bremer Bay and Hopetoun is absolutely beautiful," he says. "It's just rugged terrain."

A bird's eye view of the the Esperance Shire coastline, which spans more than 500km(Gfycat)

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. 

An aerial shot from a recreational plane shows salt lakes in WA.

Hayden's love for aviation has seen him travel thousands of kilometres across the rocky outcrops and salt lakes of WA's Goldfields-Esperance region on his own.(Supplied: Hayden McDonald)

"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. 

"I know I'm very different when I fly. You could say I change masks when I fly because it's just me. 

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

Navigating a 'neurotypical' system

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.

A young man with a high vis vest walks on an airfrield next to his dog.

Hayden wants people to understand autism better.(Supplied: Hayden McDonald)

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. 

Children with autism have long been taught to behave in neurotypical ways. That’s about to change

The updated national autism guidelines will focus on different forms of therapy for children, all of which highlight support over correction for people on the spectrum. 

A young boy plays with a sock puppet.

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It's something "you live with your whole life", he says — there is no remission or cure, or box you can tick to say it's no longer there.

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". 

"That is exactly what I'm talking about with the neurotypical approach, not understanding the whole presentation," he says. 

"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?" 

'We're going to leave people behind'

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.

A GoPro filming a flight route on an iPad.

Hayden started Wings Without Barriers, a vlog dedicated to showing life and aviation on the spectrum.(Instagram: Wings Without Barriers)

"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.

"Autism is not taught in the school curriculum… and businesses don't really know how to approach [neurodiverse] people," he says.

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

Braving a variety of weather and other conditions — including the Northern Australia wet season, which renders many outback runways "pretty much unusable" — the task at hand is no easy feat.

For his mum, Fleur, it's a daunting prospect. In the back of her mind, there's the lingering question: "What if something goes wrong?"

A photo from inside the cockpit of a light aircraft that is being flown over WA.

Flying has given Hayden a sense of freedom.(YouTube: Wings Without Barriers)

But having seen Hayden in action, and knowing he has the support of friends and family along the way, she doesn't mince words: "You can't stop his dreams."

"He's more than a diagnosis, it really annoys me that people don't take [him] on face value," she says.

"I totally understand where CASA is coming from, but I would just really love to get to the point where people are assessed on their ability, not anything else."

'See the person behind the paper'

For Hayden, flying has given him a sense of freedom in a world that doesn't always understand him.

Now he hopes to enact change, to ensure that people "see the person behind the paper".

"I want people to be more educated and understanding about autism," he says.

"Don't just look at a piece of paper and say 'No, yes, no, yes."

Hayden in the pilot's seat flying a plane over parts of the Esperance Shire(Gfycat)

From the sense of isolation that followed him growing up, to feeling shut out of the aviation industry, Hayden has encountered his fair share of hurdles.

But as he prepares to embark on his journey around Australia, his message is simple:

"If there's no opportunities for you, make one," he says.