Autistic Children Ease Flight Fear At JFK

BY LUIS GRONDA
Staff Writer

Autistic children who may be afraid of flying got a chance to quell their fear at John F. Kennedy Airport last week.
JetBlue and Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization that funds research about the disorder, co-hosted more than 300 people as they simulated preparing to board an airplane on Saturday.

One family who took part in the mock flight hand their boarding passes before going on the plane.  Photo by Luis Gronda

One family who took part in the mock flight hand their boarding passes before going on the plane.
Photo by Luis Gronda

For families with autistic children, traveling on an airplane can be a difficult experience due to nervousness or being unable to stay still for long periods of time.

Michael and Allison Giangregorio have dealt with this many times in the past. Their 12-year-old son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with autism about 10 years ago and while they do fly to Disney World in Orlando, Florida once a year, they have never gone on a longer flight than traveling to Florida.

“We’ve never pushed it beyond that two and half-ish hours and we probably won’t because I don’t know what would happen there,” said Giangregorio, who lives on Long Island but grew up in Middle Village. “Sometimes we sit on the plane and if we’re delayed, it’s a problem because he’s not used to that.”

In light of that, Giangregorio said Saturday’s flight simulation presented a great opportunity for them to learn and practice getting on an airplane to ease any fears Nicholas may have of flying when they get on a flight for real in the future.

“Families with autism, we like to go on vacation, we like to travel, we want to be able to do things like that,” he said. “And the more practice that our children get, experiencing things like this, the easier it is for us to participate in things.”

The families participating in the mock plane boarding were given boarding passes and waited in the airport lobby just like a real flight. Once it came time to get on the plane, the flight attendant called everyone according to their row number and everyone trickled onto the plane.

After they put their luggage in the overhead compartment, flight attendees strapped on their seat belts and they turned off their cell phones preparing to take off.

The plane never left the ground though. Instead, it took a tour around JFK Airport, showing the different views of airport including the JetBlue Airplane carrier, where they repair their aircrafts before taking off for its next flight.
After the plane docked at the gate, everyone applauded the pilot after a successful 30-minute flight and left to continue on with their day.

Giangregorio said the practice flight went well for his son and the family. He said they pushed the envelope for the plane ride. They did not replace his electronics with books or something to keep him entertained during the flight, just to see how he reacted. They normally would not do this, he said.

“I think he was a little upset because we didn’t get out and we weren’t in Disney, but he did okay. He did really well,” Giangregorio said.

Lisa Goring, the Vice President of Family Services at Autism Speaks, said families with autistic children who are looking to fly should always inform the airline in advance of the flight that they have a child with special needs so they can be accommodated when it comes time to get on an airplane.

Reach Luis Gronda at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127, lgronda@queenstribune.com, or @luisgronda