The sight of more than 30 kids and families wending their way through LaGuardia’s Terminal D on Saturday might have looked like a normal day at the airport, with shorter-than-usual lines.
Though they were preparing to board a plane, they wouldn’t be leaving the gate. Saturday was a dress rehearsal for children with autism spectrum disorders, many of whom had never set foot in an airport.
“A lot of families of kids with autism are intimidated by the airport process, because there are a lot of sensory experiences, a lot of crowds, there are delays that are unpredictable ... which are all things that in many cases can disrupt someone with autism’s life,” said John Goodson, training director at AHRC New York City, which serves people with developmental disabilities and runs two schools in Brooklyn for autistic children. AHRC and parent organization The Arc organized the Wings for Autism event along with the Port Authority and Delta Air Lines, which reserved counter space, a gate, crew and a plane for the afternoon.
Lily Foley and son Noah Abdelnapy, 8, of Queens, have flown to Foley’s home country of Ireland a few times, “and it’s been rough — going through security, just no understanding of what’s going on, and it’s very scary for him,” she said. On Saturday, Foley hoped to get Noah used to the airport “step by step.”
With families in tow, they lined up to get a boarding pass, were screened at security, navigated the airport terminal and waited at the gate to board their faux flight.
“We really have never traveled on a plane before with the kids,” said Alicia Pavignano, of upstate Woodbury, whose son Evan, 9, is autistic. “We’re always fearful that what if we buy the tickets and we get there and Evan just can’t handle it, we have to turn around and go home, so this is such a fantastic thing that they do for families with autistic children, so they can experience this.”
Eventually they were led onto the plane, guided by an enthusiastic crew. They stayed in their seats for about half an hour, listening to the captain’s voice and playing trivia with the Delta crew.
Throughout the day, they practiced the difficult task of waiting and staying calm in an unfamiliar environment exploding with noise and sensory distractions. A few balked at boarding the plane, but others took to the jet-set life.
“It was fabulous, we had a great time,” said Vicky Shurott, of Brooklyn, whose son Salvatore, 17, had never been to the airport and wants to fly to Las Vegas. “I’m really proud of the way he handled it.”