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Flying with autism: One airline's kindness surprises mom

Shawna Wingert is used to preparing for the worst when she flies with her 12-year-old son, who has autism, sensory processing issues and an anxiety disorder.

But her experience with one particular airline was so surprisingly good that it led her to write a blog post that has been shared more than 8,000 times.

“Thank you from an already overwhelmed, tired, fighting for her son every day of her life, momma. Thank you on behalf of an eleven year old boy who struggles to cope in a world that just doesn’t understand or easily accommodate him.”

Courtesy Shawna Wingert
Shawna Wingert and her son, who has autism, anxiety and sensory processing disorders; flying used to feel like torture for them.

Autism and air travel made headlines this month when a United Airlines flight was diverted and a family with an autistic teenager was removed from the plane after she became hungry and agitated, according to news reports. The girl’s mother called the episode “a sheer case of ignorance.”

Having a child with special needs is isolating all the time, Wingert says, but she feels the pressure even more during air travel. When her son Tyler is having a meltdown, people only see the “pinnacle of the anxiety,” she said, yet she feels they judge her as though she is handling Tyler incorrectly or failing to stop his behavior. In reality, she says she is working nonstop to head off and solve problems.

“Autism just doesn’t stop because your mom says it has to,” she says. “It’s here 24/7. We do the best we can.”

Wingert flies with her son as many as nine times a year between their home in California and his father’s home in Seattle, part of their agreed-upon custody arrangement. So avoiding air travel, as many families of children with autism do, is not an option.

After having poor experiences on several airlines that left her feeling as if she was being scolded, for example, for asking to board early to avoid a meltdown, Wingert said she had a completely different experience on JetBlue, prompting her to write the airline an open letter on her blog. Though she wrote her love letter a year ago, she says it's even more true today.

“The difference in the last six flights we’ve had versus all the ones before is night and day,” says Wingert, 40, of Duarte, California, who will no longer fly on another airline with Tyler despite the extra half-hour drive to an airport where JetBlue operates.

“On JetBlue every time, it’s been like, ‘We’ve got you,’” she says, adding: “That’s a huge comfort. It’s a big deal.”

And it’s a striking contrast to when she and her son, who is most bothered by smells and sounds, flew on other carriers. Wingert says she had to beg for early boarding to avoid the noise of the announcements, even as Tyler cried, scratched and banged his head.

“In every instance with other airlines, when I tried to quietly explain what we need, the immediate response is ‘No,’” she says, adding that she would be told an exception was being made for them to board early because family boarding was for much younger children.

“There was this very definite desire to protect the rules and not a ton of acknowledgment or care about the reality of what’s happening right in front of them.”

Courtesy Shawna Wingert
Shawna Wingert blogs about her family and more at "Not The Former Things."

Meanwhile on JetBlue, Wingert wrote, she could note Tyler’s special needs when she booked their tickets online. In a follow-up conversation, a customer service representative moved their seats to the middle of the plane when Wingert told her that Tyler had trouble dealing with bathroom smells. They enjoyed “silent preboarding” — no jarring announcements that might upset Tyler.

On the flight, Wingert wrote, “When he started to meltdown because he wanted a different drink than what was on the menu, the attendant told him he would wait as long as necessary for him to make another decision — no rush. My son calmed down, smiled and ordered a ginger ale. It was exactly what he needed.”

Wingert noted on her blog post that she’s not getting paid by JetBlue to write nice things about them; she just wanted to let people know how grateful she was for the good experience.

Airlines and airports are a “mixed bag” when it comes to how well they handle families with autistic children, says Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, which helped launch the Navigating Autism program at the Minneapolis airport.

“There’s absolutely a lack of awareness on the part of airlines and airports about how to deal with this population, and how to be welcoming and accommodating to families impacted by autism,” Weinberg says.

Simple acts of kindness go a long way, Wingert said.

“When he is under duress and panicking, when someone is upset with him, it causes more anxiety and stress,” Wingert says. “When someone is kind, it helps him to calm down.”

In February during the busy Presidents Day holiday, Tyler was having a tough time in the boarding area, and began banging his head, sobbing and scratching.

A gate agent named Sandy tried to help several times, even offering to summon the captain to welcome Tyler aboard like a VIP. When Wingert decided they could not take the flight, she realized she had checked her bag that held Tyler’s medication.

Sandy went outside to the plane but could not retrieve the bag and assured Wingert it would be flown back the next day. A few days later, Sandy called to make sure Wingert got her luggage, and asked how she and Tyler were doing.

“I burst into tears because the kindness just touched me,” Wingert says. “To just be so gracious and helpful and on our side, it was amazing. And it’s rare that that happens.”

Lisa A. Flam, a regular contributor to TODAY.com, is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.

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