Broward County

Broward children with autism prepare for travel with ‘flight to nowhere’

Ryan George had never stepped onto a plane before.

The closest the 10-year-old has come to flying? Watching planes take off and land at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

But Thursday, as part of Broward County’s Autism in Flight program, Ryan and about 50 other students with autism took a pretend flight to Honolulu to experience what it’s like to travel by air.

“A lot of parents are afraid to risk a $300 to $400 airline ticket for the child if they don’t know how they are going to act,” said Tim Arnwine, a parent of a son with autism, who came up with the idea last year. “So the goal was to give them a realistic experience.”

And realistic it was.

The students began their journey with a brief introduction before they were ushered to the ticket counter.

Ryan, a student at Dania Elementary School, waited his turn to go to the counter. He received his boarding pass for Flight 7916. He had to wait for his mother, Amelia George, to show her ID and get her ticket.

After Ryan’s classmates also got passes, they were off to security.

Off came Ryan’s Velcro sneakers.

“We put them back on after we go through security,” his mom explained.

The entire group then gathered at the gate to board — and then “take off.”

“I wonder where we are going,” said Kristian Schweser, 10. “I’ve never been on a plane before.”

Kristian said that if he could go anywhere, it would be to New York City. “In the movie Madagascar the animals are in a zoo in New York,” he said.

Having the students wait at the gate is part of the experience, said Jason Annunziata, JetBlue’s director at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“We want them to understand the entire process,” he said. “It is as beneficial to the kids as it is to us.”

Maggie Marigold, an autism coach at Dania Elementary, said taking a mock flight is the perfect way to prepare children with autism for a future flight. She said traveling could be stressful for anyone, but for children with autism, loud sounds, a break from routine and waiting are all factors that could trigger negative reactions. So could the speaker announcing flights, the lights and the security lines.

“Giving them the experience from beginning to end is invaluable,” she said.

After the wait came the boarding announcement.

“Boarding on Flight 7916 to Honolulu will begin shortly,” a woman said over the speaker.

When boarding began, students were instructed to look at their seat numbers.

“Is it our turn yet?” said Kristian, who clung to his ticket.

When everyone was on board, the students were told to buckle up and listen to the safety announcement. Flight attendants served chips and water.

Ryan George buckled himself in and watched cartoons on the television screen in front of him.

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief, who was on board, said the idea came from two parents who had a difficult time traveling. It began last year with only one school, Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar, and grew to include four other schools this year.

“A lot of people have come together to make this possible,” she said, including JetBlue, the school district, the county and the federal Transportation Security Administration.

As the half-hour “flight” ended, everyone on board was told to put their tray tables up and adjust their seats. Kristian lifted his sun shade and said, “We’re back!”

While the students may have never left Fort Lauderdale, for some the memories of this pretend trip will make it easier in the future.

“Can we plan a trip?” asked Diego Martin, a student at Panther Run Elementary School in Pembroke Pines, who was disappointed that the plane never left the ground.

“We will see,” said his mother, Amelia.