From left: Julian Green and his father Derek Green, Dr. Wendy Ross, Sheila Mitchell-Green, Captain Richard Parella of United Airlines
01/09/2013 at 10:55 AM EST
The skies have gotten a lot friendlier for kids with autism and their families – thanks to Philadelphia pediatrician Wendy Ross and a newly expanded program she helped create
It all started in 2009: Ross, 42, was in her office when the mother of a patient, a girl with autism, called frantically from a Florida airport. Rattled by the boarding process, the child had suffered such a terrible meltdown that the family decided to get off the plane.
"These families feel so trapped, it's heartbreaking," Ross tells PEOPLE. "I thought, 'What can I do to make this right?'"
So Ross, a married mom of two boys, worked with clinicians and airlines to develop an air-travel program at Philadelphia International Airport
that lets kids with autism practice everything from check-in and security screenings to boarding a mock flight.
In November, United Airlines
began rolling it out nationally through Autism Inclusion Resources
(AIR), Ross's nonprofit organization, and it's already helping parents in other cities. AIR has landed in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and will be planning further stops in Houston, Los Angeles and Newark this year.
The flight training was exactly the help that parents Derek Green and Sheila Mitchell-Green needed. Their 11-year-old son Julian struggles with lines, but traveled smoothly thanks to Ross's efforts when they visited Disney World in 2011.
"Being able to go through a dry run and see how he experienced being on a plane put us much more at ease that this was something he could do," says Derek.
If Julian went through the boarding process once, "he would know exactly [what to expect], because he has that kind of memory," Sheila adds.
And that's just what happened. "This made all the difference in the world," says Sheila.
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