Logan Program Helps Autistic Children Board Planes

BOSTON — 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.

This past weekend, 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.

‘Wings For Autism’

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. 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.

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  • G26

    If free markets are to work well, civilized moral standards and proven legal principles must be in place to guide separate competitors working independently in the marketplace.

  • fun bobby

    rich people problems

    • mumtothree

      Well, I guess you’ll understand then, when your autistic grandson and his parents miss your 80th birthday. Or your funeral.

      • fun bobby

        he would probably hate the 21 gun salute

  • naresident11

    Disappointing to note that there are several inaccuracies in this segment (so not typical for NPR). To clarify, Massport did NOT create this program. Wings for Autism (TM), is a national, trademarked program created by the Charles River Center (a chapter of The Arc). Through its large scale network across the country, The Arc has successfully taken the Wings for Autism program national, having run in Anchorage (AK), Burbank (CA), Hartford (CT), Jacksonville (FL) and Manchester (NH) — none of which Massport had anything to do with whatsoever. Additionally, in Boston alone, the Wings for Autism program has been run 7 times since its inception in May 2011, with more than 2,300 people served. For the twice a year execution of Wings in Boston, Massport has been a collaborator, but is not the creator, nor does it execute any of the laborious responsibility behind the Wings for Autism program, training across multiple airports, etc. That is all handled by Charles River Center/The Arc of the United States. It was disappointing to see Massport attempt to credit itself for its relatively small role in the development of a program that broadly serves and supports individuals with special needs across the country. Hopefully NPR will make proper corrections. http://www.thearc.org/wingsforautism

    • BeachLoverMA

      Thank you for pointing out many of the inaccuracies in this article. It appears as though the author didn’t spend much time researching their topic!! I also think that it is very unfortunate that Jennifer (Robtoy) Ryan isn’t even mentioned in the article, even though this program was her idea and she has dedicated so much time and effort to organize these events.

      • naresident11

        That is such a valuable point. In addition, it is frustrating that Massport is claiming this as ‘their’ program. I’d like to hear all about how someone at an airport knew how to craft a program to support individuals with Autism? Who has that expertise at an airport? No one…which is why this is maddening. The Littlejohn family was a client of the Charles River Center–and the idea and all the work behind the creation of the program came from the same person/place–and it certainly was not Massport. NPR, please CORRECT your story!

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