How An Air Traveler With Autism Found Strength In A Stranger's Kindness Russell Lehmann, who has autism, suffered a major meltdown at the airport in June. An airline employee saw him and tried to help. That "meant the world," Russell says, and changed his life.
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How An Air Traveler With Autism Found Strength In A Stranger's Kindness

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How An Air Traveler With Autism Found Strength In A Stranger's Kindness

How An Air Traveler With Autism Found Strength In A Stranger's Kindness

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it's time for StoryCorps now. Air travel can be stressful for all of us. But for Russell Lehmann, who has autism, a flight delay or cancellation is not just inconvenient. Unexpected changes can cause him to have panic attacks or worse. And that's what happened recently when Russell was trying to catch a flight from his hometown of Reno to Cincinnati. At StoryCorps, he sat down with David Apkarian, an airline employee, to remember that painful moment.

RUSSELL LEHMAN: I remember sitting in the same exact spot for seven hours, crying. And not one person approached me. Not one person made eye contact with me. The next day, once again, my flight was delayed. And that's when I found an empty ticket counter. I sat behind it. And I started sweating bullets, rocking back and forth, hyperventilating. I hadn't had an episode like that probably since I was, like, 11. And that's when you came up.

DAVID APKARIAN: You were sitting on the floor, and you looked really upset. Do you remember what I first said?

LEHMAN: I don't remember a whole lot because for me, in the midst of a meltdown, my brain literally feels like it's on fire with a vice grip around it just getting tighter and tighter. I have a hard time comprehending the simplest sentences. I just feel like I'm on a planet all by myself. But when you crouched down beside me and asked me what was going on, my feelings started to change. Having someone actually recognize that I was human and that I was there - it meant the world to me, and I didn't feel as fragile. I had someone on my team.

APKARIAN: I remember letting the crew know that you were very uneasy about getting on the airplane. And I brought the captain over to hopefully, you know, give you another boost of confidence.

LEHMAN: Yeah. That's when I made up my mind. Yeah, I'm getting on this plane. You walked me onto the flight. I was able to board before anybody else to get situated and just kind of have some peace. So, David, did you wonder what happened to me after I finally got on the plane?

APKARIAN: Yeah. It's actually funny you should ask that. You know, I have access to our computer system at home. And I followed you. I saw that second flight did have a little bit of a delay. But it showed that you had stayed onboard and got through. I was very happy about that.

LEHMAN: You didn't really know much about autism that day in the airport. But you connected on a human level. And we can't lose in that situation. What you did really changed my life. Knowing that since this was such a difficult meltdown and one of the worst I've ever had - that since I got through that, I can pretty much get through anything.

GREENE: That was Russell Lehmann and David Apkarian at StoryCorps in Reno. Their conversation will be archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELUVIUM'S "GENIUS AND THE THIEVES")

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