Kids with autism get airport test run: 'Next time the anxiety level will not be so high'

Feb 4, 2014
By Beth Reese Cravey

Max Moran, 12, makes his way down the aisle of a JetBlue airplane with his mother, Mariam. JetBlue has been involved in the "Wings for Autism" program for three years.

Michelle Dunham and her 15-year-old son Nicholas, who has autism, held hands as they navigated Jacksonville International Airport.

She worried how he would react to walking through a place full of strangers and unfamiliar sights and sounds and going into the big scary security-scan machine, the narrow enclosed tunnel that connects the terminal to the JetBlue plane and the narrow enclosed aisle of the plane.

“I’m more nervous than he is,” Dunham said.

Flight 7920, which traveled only a mile or so, was part of Jacksonville International Airport’s first Wings for Autism event, an “airport dress rehearsal” for area families with autistic children. Thirty families obtained boarding passes, went through security, ate boxed lunches together, waited, walked down the tunnel, boarded the plane, waited some more and experienced the plane’s movement as it was towed from the terminal to the runway and back.

Nicholas, who is sensitive to sound, light and touch, wore noise-canceling headphones in the terminal and on the plane. He showed a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

He willingly entered the scanner, but was startled by the scan itself and walked backwards when it was over rather than ahead. He enjoyed watching tarmac activity from a window at lunch, but didn’t eat much and focused on his iPad when the waiting got to him. And when he got on the plane, he headed down the aisle at a fast pace to find his seat.

“He did excellent,” marveled his mother, co-founder and executive director of the Jacksonville School for Autism. “I am really shocked.”


Wings for Autism was created in 2011 by the Charles River Center in Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Port Authority to help alleviate some of the stress that people with sensory and developmental disorders experience when traveling by air. Also, the free program helps airport personnel learn how to accommodate children with special needs.

The Jacksonville program on Jan. 29 was among the first, after Boston, Montreal and Seattle, and will be followed this year by events in Anchorage and Tulsa, with negotiations under way with other airports.

So far, six airlines are participating.

Local sponsors were JIA, JetBlue Jacksonville, the Transportation Security Administration, HMS Host food services, The Arc of Jacksonville — which serves people with intellectual and developmental disorders — and The HEAL Foundation (Healing Every Autistic Life), a nonprofit based in Ponte Vedra Beach.


Brian Long, JIA customer services manager, said the program stemmed from the many requests he had received for “some sort of orientation” for special-needs children.

“That gave us the impetus,” he said. “This was the right thing to do and it was in our best interest.”

There was a waiting list for the test run, which was the first Wings for Autism event that included the plane actually moving, and JIA plans to offer the program again.

JetBlue, which has been part of Wings for Austism for three years in Boston, will participate in future Jacksonville programs as well, said John Friedel, the airline’s Jacksonville general manager.

The JetBlue flight crew volunteered its services.

“We were founded with the vision of bringing humanity back to air travel and ... and leading by action,” he said.

The youth on the plane had a wide range of autism spectrum disorders. Most of them seemed to handle the experience with aplomb, although there were some squeals and crying during the 4-hour journey.

“The major goal of this being a ‘rehearsal’ to give families an indication of how their child with autism would experience air travel was accomplished,” said Judy Hall Lanier, director of development for the Arc of Jacksonville. “I saw a lot of smiles in the gate area afterwards!”

Leslie Weed, co-founder of HEAL, said she was impressed by how welcoming airport personnel were toward the group.

She did not bring her daughter, who has a severe form of autism, but said she might in the future.

“For the families to get the opportunity to have a test run, next time the anxiety level will not be so high,” she said.


As the plane moved from the terminal, Darren Beechum, 14, sat in a window seat and urged the plane on.

“Bye bye,” he said. “Here we go!”

When the plane stopped briefly, he got fidgety. When the plane began moving again, he said he knew what planes typically do next.

“Up and up and up and up,” he said.

His mother, Barbara, sitting beside him, said she wondered if that expectation would cause more anxiety, since the plane was not going to go up. But when the plane returned to the terminal, he said, “Do it again.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109



Visit our airport system websites