Flying can be an unpleasant experience — the cramped cabins, the processed air, the indignity of going through security. But for families with autistic children, the process can be nearly impossible.
Boston’s Logan International Airport is working to change that.
Earlier this month, Massport, which owns and operates the airport, held a daylong seminar — a dry run of sorts — for children with autism to experience what it’s like to board a plane.
At first, it sounded just like any other pre-flight announcement. But there was something very different about this one:
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to JetBlue Airways,” the flight attendant said. “Our captain has informed us that our flight time will be 0 minutes.”
The plane wasn’t going anywhere. It had been donated to help parents of autistic children practice the trials and stresses of flying. There were more than 100 kids there, almost all of them somewhere on the autism spectrum.
“Loud noises are much louder to them, and obviously an airport terminal is very loud,” Tom Glynn, the CEO of Massport, said at the seminar. “They don’t like people touching them, but if you go through TSA, sometimes that is something that happens. So it’s kind of a dry run for them before they actually have to get on the plane. So they get used to it, [and] so we train ourselves about how to do a better job serving them.”
The program, Wings For Autism, runs twice a year — once in November before the holidays, and once in the spring before summer break.
Each seminar costs nothing for families or the airport. Brad Martin, who created the program, says pilots, flight attendants and TSA screeners volunteer their time to provide as close to a realistic flight experience as possible.
Also, airlines donate their planes and the fuel costs to get there.
“Today we had three aircraft,” Martin said. “We started off with one aircraft three years ago. Today we had three aircraft from three different companies. It’s just a really great team effort — [a] Logan, family effort.”
Martin says the program was created after one woman, Susie Littlejohn, tried to board a flight with her son, Henry.
Henry, who has autism, got nervous as they boarded the plane and looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack.
“We just decided, kind of in that moment, that my husband and my older son Jack would continue on and go on our vacation,” Littlejohn said. “Henry and I got off the plane because we couldn’t even buckle his seatbelt. We just knew that it wasn’t going to work out.”
Henry has gone through the Wings for Autism program six times, each time getting just a bit further than the last. This time he made it all the way down the jetway and into his seat.
“He won’t put his seatbelt on. He won’t let me put my seatbelt on, but he was able to, for 45 minutes, really just sit there and do a good job,” Littlejohn said. “He was still panicked but he did a good job of knowing, ‘We’re just going to sit here, we’re going to go through this, and then I get to get off.’ ”
The Littlejohns have taken an airplane seatbelt home to help Henry practice at the dinner table, but there are still worries about how he’ll react once the plane takes off.
There are talks at the Charles River Center, which helps organize the event, about chartering a flight exclusively for families with autistic children as early as October.
Littlejohn says she’s not sure that her family will be on that first flight, but she’s hopeful she and Henry will be able to a board a plane — for real — sometime soon.