Vacation dreams take flight

Logan Airport practice run aims to ease travel for autistic children

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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The Littlejohn family’s much-anticipated trip together to Walt Disney World last fall never made it past Logan International Airport.

Henry was spooked by the glass elevator. Ambient airport noise — the unexpected beeps, the loudspeaker announcements — almost proved too much for a 6-year-old with autism.

“We thought we had him settled’’ on the plane, said Erik Littlejohn. “But then a guy behind him opened his window shade.’’

Henry melted. He cried and kicked, and takeoff was delayed when his parents could not buckle his seat belt. The family made a wrenching decision: Mom and Henry got off the plane and went home to Holliston; Dad and Henry’s 7-year-old brother went on to Disney World.

The Littlejohns knew there had to be a better way.

Yesterday they found it back at Logan. Henry and his parents joined 60 other families with autistic children and practiced braving airport security and boarding a plane. The initiative, Wings for Autism, was inspired by the Littlejohns and marked a first for Logan and the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport.

Similar programs have been staged with a handful of families at airports in Philadelphia and Newark, aviation officials said. But yes terday’s event at Logan was by far the largest to date in the country, they said, drawing 200 people from across New England. Another 150 are on a waiting list for a similar session this fall.

“A lot of these families have never flown before, because they are afraid. It’s a lot of money to spend on tickets and then find out at the airport you can’t go,’’ said Jennifer Robtoy, the organizer of the initiative and director of autism support at The Charles River Center for people with developmental disabilities. “A lot of families will be able to take a family vacation now.’’

The practice run through security and boarding allowed parents to establish travel routines, key for many children with autism who cling to structure and repetition. It offered hands-on training to dozens of security officers, airport personnel, pilots, and flight attendants from JetBlue, which brought an Airbus 320 to Gate E6 to allow families to spend time on the plane.

The day also showcased the extraordinary patience and grace of dozens of New England parents, who navigate life guiding a child with a vexing developmental disorder.

People with autism and other special needs are subjected to the same screening procedures as all passengers boarding an airplane. But awareness of the disorder can help security officers understand some behaviors.

Some children with autism, for example, run off to explore with wild abandon. That can be particularly difficult for a parent stuck in line at a metal detector.

Working with federal officials, Robtoy and other advocates developed a lapel pin that families can wear so security screeners know they might need more time. The pin shows a multicolored airplane with a puzzle piece in the center, the international symbol for autism.

Massport has also begun encouraging families with autistic children to contact Logan several days before they plan to fly. The airport will set up individual practice times for children and assign a customer service representative to accompany families through the security on the day of a flight, said Brad Martin, deputy director of aviation customer service.

Yesterday the practice run in Terminal E began before families arrived. Robtoy stood near a metal detector and told dozens of airport personnel what to expect.

Some children would come wearing noise-canceling headphones to curb sensory overload. Others might have LoJack tracking bracelets in case they get lost. Parents dress some children in helmets and leg braces to protect them. Some kids may throw fits and flail their arms when asked to send backpacks, iPods, and other cherished possessions through the X-ray machine.

“This allows us to become more familiar with all special needs,’’ said George Naccara, federal security director at Logan for the Transportation Security Administration. “We’re going to be training all of our staff.’’

As families filed through metal detectors, a 3-year-old boy, Bruno Bianchini, broke free of his mother and tried to sprint through the security checkpoint. Robin Zandt, a security supervisor, stepped in his path. Bruno turned and ran back to his mother, Maria Bianchini, 40, of Watertown. “We can corral,’’ Zandt said, explaining the rules, ’’but we can’t pick up.’’

Waiting in line to board the JetBlue plane, Bruce Eddy held his 7-year-old son, Ryan, who closed his eyes, listened to calming music on headphones, and burrowed into his dad. The family from Nashua has longed to visit relatives in California, but they have been afraid Ryan could not handle the flight.

“If you are stuck on a plane, you are stuck,’’ Bruce Eddy said as he cradled his boy. “We’ll see how this experience goes.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at