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People with ‘invisible disabilities’ welcome benefits of John Wayne Airport’s new Helping Hands

Nathaniel Behura, second from left, of Yorba Linda and his 12-year-old son Max, who has autism, speak to Southwest Airlines personnel during an event Thursday announcing the Helping Hands initiative at John Wayne Airport.
(Photo by Julia Sclafani)

Alyssa Bridges is familiar with John Wayne Airport but has never boarded an airplane. In fact, her mother, Adilia, has to assure her each time they drop off a visitor at the airport that Alyssa isn’t going anywhere.

Alyssa, 17, of Fullerton, is on the “severe side” of the autism spectrum, her mom said. For the Bridges family, like many who have a member with a disability, plane travel has seemed unimaginable.

But now, travelers who need extra assistance navigating John Wayne Airport and its protocols can request it through the airport’s new Helping Hands program.

In launching the program, the airport was thinking specifically of “invisible disabilities” such as autism and dementia, JWA director Barry Rondinella said Thursday at an event announcing the initiative.


Though some assistance has always been available, the new program trained JWA’s customer service team, Transportation Security Administration officers, wheelchair handlers and airline staff and crew members to integrate their services and know what accommodations are being made for visitors.

“The difference is now we are working together,” said Rachel Gibson, JWA customer relations manager.

Help could take the form of letting a disabled person board a plane first, have extra time to prepare for and go through security screenings and get luggage picked up at the curb, Gibson said.

Patrons have the option of wearing a yellow Helping Hands wristband to signal airport personnel that they might need special accommodations or assistance.


JWA looked to other airports to identify the types of accommodations being offered and what works, Gibson said. It is striving to imitate programs with the most options, she added.

“We are not going to say no,” Gibson said.

For people like Alyssa, that could be a big help.

She is highly sensitive to noise. “She can hear a cricket across the street,” her mother said.

Aside from autism, Alyssa also has epilepsy. A stressful, overstimulating and unfamiliar environment like an airport is the sort of thing that can trigger a breakdown or seizure, Adilia Bridges said.

Round trips to visit grandparents in Louisiana require two extra weeks for driving, including frequent stops for Alyssa.

Adilia said she’s happy that airport personnel are being trained to help people like her daughter.

Knowing she can anticipate being asked “Do you need assistance?” as opposed to “Is there a problem?” is a comfort, she said.


Julie Diep, founder of OC Autism, a community organization that supports children and adults with autism, said she’s excited that families she works with now have resources to help with air travel. Groups like OC Autism play a role in spreading the word about Helping Hands.

Diep hopes the help will enable families to embrace travel and exploration.

She said families with autistic children tell her they are going to travel, adding, “They are going to understand us and won’t judge us.”