Families Prepare to Take Flight with Wings for Autism

April 8, 2024
• Hundreds of families trekked to Logan International Airport Saturday morning, and while many boarded planes, no one left the ground.

That’s because it was all a trial run by Wings for Autism, a Charles River Center program in which children and adults on the autism spectrum can familiarize themselves with the process of air travel, while airport personnel and flight crew members learn how best to serve the population.

Participants followed the typical airport routine: They checked in, received boarding passes, passed through security, waited at their gate and boarded their planes — one was set for Tokyo, others for Orlando. More than 1,000 people signed up for this spring’s event, bringing the total number of program participants to over 10,000.

A family moves through security during the Wings for Autism event at Logan Airport April 6, 2024. (Courtesy Charles River Center)

It’s an important milestone for Jen Ryan, who started Wings for Autism while running the Charles River Center’s Autism Support Center back in 2011.

“We know with kids with autism, the more they rehearse, the more familiar it is, the more successful they are,” she said.

The program began as an idea in Needham. Jen Ryan heard from a family who tried to fly to Disney World, but their 5-year-old son wouldn’t board the plane. His mother remarked how she wished the airport would let them practice for the occasion, which sparked the concept. After connecting with the Massachusetts Port Authority, Wings for Autism was born.

Their first event in Boston in May 2011 garnered 200 people, and it’s only grown since, Jen Ryan said.

“It’s just easing anxiety, no one’s really doing anything different,” Jen Ryan said. “It’s just, as a parent, knowing someone’s there to help you, it makes all the difference.”

Wings for Autism has gone nationwide in more than 70 other airports, including at the Worcester Regional Airport. It’s now held twice a year at Logan, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Port Authority and dozens of airport and airline staff.

A child and his father board a JetBlue flight during the Wings for Autism event at Logan International Airport April 6, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Every family measures success differently, with some venturing through the plane and others stopping short at the jet bridge.

Kelly Dazzi and her 11-year-old son Dyllan arrived at Logan with their family of six, but the pair stayed behind at the terminal — they made through each step of the process until it came time to sit on the plane, when Dyllan got nervous.

Dyllan has nonverbal autism, and though he loves planes — and even wore a Boeing hat to the airport — travel still poses its challenges. Dazzi said they hope to visit family who live outside Disney World soon, and she values their ability to rehearse for when that day comes.

“Before we spend all that money on tickets, we wanted to practice to see if we could do it,” she said.

Volunteer Debra Moore, of Tewksbury, said helping families over the last few years has been rewarding. She often sees the same kids and adults return, making incremental progress each year.

“You see the challenges they have with new experiences,” Moore said.

Dana Quigley, of Salem, and his 6-year-old son Quinton wait at TSA as their bags are inspected. The family participated in Saturday’s Wings for Autism event at Logan Airport. (Cameron Morsberger)

The Quigleys from Salem are preparing for their trip to Myrtle Beach next week in what will be their first flight as a family. Mom and dad Kati and Dana consider Wings for Autism a “low-stakes” trial run before the real thing.

Their six-year-old son Quinton likes to follow rules in the order they’re presented, but that rigidity can be difficult in notoriously unpredictable and confusing places, like the airport, his father said. Quinton’s autism and ADHD diagnoses add an extra layer to the process, but Dana Quigley reminds him of his love for space and desire to one day explore the cosmos.“There’s a lot of rule-following and listening, but it’s what gets you closer to space,” Dana Quigley said.

Malani Murphy, 7, from Hyde Park, boarded two flights, including the Japan Airlines flight. Murphy, her 13-year-old brother Mahkyi and her mom LaVonda Epps plan to visit Tokyo next year.

Before their flight to Las Vegas last year, the family participated in Wings for Autism, which Epps said offered them peace of mind. Her daughter has high-functioning autism, and as they gear up for a longer trip overseas, the process seemed “less scary” this time around, Epps said. She thinks the security dogs present throughout the airport helped.

Two young boys smile onboard a Japan Airlines flight during Wings for Autism at Logan Airport April 6, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Malani Murphy said she enjoyed the first class seats on the airplane, but when asked if she’s excited for a trip to Japan, she shook her head.

“I know where I want to go: back to Las Vegas,” she said with a smile.

Before the event kicked off, Mia Healy-Waldron, deputy director of customer service at MassPort, remarked at the significance of the 10,000-person figure.

“There’s an important story and transformation that’s happened in a lot of the people that are represented in that figure. Truly, lives change,” Healy-Waldron told volunteers and crew. “And that’s the power of an idea, the power of collaboration and the power of selfless belief in what is possible.”

Hilary Ryan, vice president of development at the Charles River Center, said the program is a learning opportunity for all involved, and feedback from participants speaks for itself.

“Families have just been incredibly thankful,” Hilary Ryan said. “Families have been like, I never thought in my lifetime that I’d ever be able to go on the airplane with my child. I just never thought that was a reality for us.

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