Tom and Zsuzsa Price arrived Saturday to Kennedy International Airport, their four young children in tow, full of anxiety. Four-year-old Callum has autism and the whole family had never been on a plane together.
They checked in, went through airport security and boarded JetBlue Flight 001, with sandy-haired Callum at times whimpering, yelling and fidgeting.
This time, though, it was just practice.
JetBlue Airways and the nonprofit Autism Speaks set up an air travel practice session for families who have children with the disorder. JetBlue officials said it was the first such event at JFK, one of the nation’s busiest airports.
“We had no idea what to expect, we didn’t know whether we’d have to turn around and go home,” said Zsuzsa Price, of Bayshore, N.Y. “We’re grateful to have the chance to try it out.”
Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges and now affects one in 88 children, according to Autism Speaks, which offers support and aims to raise awareness of the disorder. JetBlue officials said they wanted to teach their employees tools to help make travel comfortable for people with autism — who represent a growing number of customers.
“The more tools we supply to our crew members, the better we can serve our customers,” said JetBlue spokeswoman Kate Wetzel.
JetBlue workers volunteered their time, and the airline absorbed the cost of using the plane for the afternoon. About 300 parents and children attended. The Airbus 320 departed the gate and taxied around the tarmac for 20 minutes before returning.
Parents said they appreciated the ability to practice with their children, who ranged on the spectrum from mild to severe and in age from toddler to adult.
“They should do this at all airports, it’s awesome,” said Ryan Young of Brooklyn, sitting next to his 8-year-old daughter, Rachel, who quietly read “Diary of Wimpy Kid.”
“Having a situation where they can get to experience what it’s like, it makes it so much easier, for them and for us,” Young said.
Many of the children had never been on a plane before. Parents were anxious about tantrums sparked by the pilot’s request to turn off electronic devices. Some kids wept, others laughed and some slept during the brief taxi. Many shied away from agents touching them. One boy opened the emergency exit door twice in the gate area, setting off a blaring alarm, triggering more tears. Another girl made it down the boarding bridge but refused, screaming, to get onboard.
“I’m really glad we had this experience because I know he’s not quite ready for the real thing yet,” said Shantrise Keller, whose 2-year-old son Trevor is being evaluated for the disorder.
Twelve-year-old Nicholas Giangregorio doesn’t speak and doesn’t like to walk, so his parents Michael and Alison practiced walking down the boarding bridge. He walked slowly, his hands over his ears. The couple travels once a year and calls ahead, reserving the bulkhead seats and asking for priority boarding.
The only problem with the practice run, some parents said, is that people were too nice. Fellow passengers — and workers — aren’t often so supportive during real travel.
“This was just great. We are so grateful, but in reality it is not going to be this easy,” said Cathy Russo of Brooklyn. In line, her 6-year-old, Anthony, had buried his head in her stomach, covering his ears, but fell asleep on board.
The Price family is planning a trip to Disney World in Florida in December, and they now feel more comfortable.
“He loved it,” Zsuzsa Price said of Callum, who jumped up and down and laughed. “We are ready for our next trip.”
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