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

Heard on Morning Edition

With Mia Warren

Russell Lehmann (left) and David Apkarian at their StoryCorps interview in Reno, Nev. Courtesy of StoryCorps

Air travel can be a stressful experience for all of us. But for Russell Lehmann, who has autism, a flight delay or cancellation isn’t just a small inconvenience. Unexpected changes can cause him to have panic attacks — or worse.

That’s what happened when Russell was trying to catch a flight from Reno, Nev., to Cincinnati in June that got delayed.

“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,” Russell, 29, says in a StoryCorps conversation. “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.”

That’s when David Apkarian, an airline employee, walked up.

“You were sitting on the floor, and you looked really upset. Do you remember what I first said?” David, 49, tells Russell at StoryCorps.

“I don’t remember a whole lot, ’cause for me, in the midst of a meltdown, my brain literally feels like it’s on fire, with a vise grip around it, just getting tighter and tighter,” Russell says. “I have a hard time comprehending the simplest sentences. I just feel like I’m on a planet all by myself.”

Then David crouched beside him and asked him what was going on, he says, meant the world. “I didn’t feel as fragile. I had someone on my team,” he says.

David says he let the crew know Russell was uneasy about getting on the flight, and he brought the captain over to him in hopes of giving him a boost of confidence.

“That’s when I made up my mind, ‘Yeah, I’m getting on this plane,’ ” Russell says. “You walked me onto the flight. I was able to board before anybody else to get situated and just kind of have some peace.”

Russell asks David if he wondered what happened to him after he boarded.

“It’s actually funny you should ask that. You know, I have access to our computer system at home, and I followed you,” he says. “I saw that second flight did have a little bit of a delay, but it showed that you had stayed on board and got through. I was very happy about that.”

“You didn’t really know much about autism that day in the airport, but you connected on a human level,” Russell says.

And that, he tells David, changed his 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,” he says.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.

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Dear Russell,

On behalf of the Community Engagement Conference 2022 Planning Committee we would like to thank you again for the wonderful keynote address that you presented on our theme of “Building Community” at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. The conference had over 300 people in attendance. The audience feedback on your presentation was outstanding! Out of approximately 50% of returned surveys, 100% of the respondents gave you the highest possible review on your presentation. We felt honored to have you as our guest in Northeast Missouri.

Russell, your presentation came at a pivotal moment for our community as we discuss and plan the development of the Greenwood Center for Autism in Northeast Missouri. To quote one of the key players from the conference, she said “Russell is saying exactly what everyone in this room needs to hear.”  We appreciate your transparency in sharing your inspiring personal journey. Your willingness to discuss your story, identify what worked and what didn’t work for you as well as your balance in reviewing educational and community supports had enormous impact on our community leadership. We are confident that your message will be considered in the planning and providing services for the autistic community in Northeast Missouri for many years to come.

In addition, the participants were particularly appreciative of the round table discussion which you led following lunch. So many of the people receiving community services felt comfortable enough to speak up and share their thoughts. Many participants said that they have never seen that level of participation from the consumers of our services in the history of this conference. Together we all agreed it was because of your motivational speaking style and ability to connect on a deeply personal level with your audience.

Russell, your ability to communicate a positive and inspiring message to people with developmental disabilities has emboldened many to speak up and embrace self-advocacy. Following your presentation, several local citizens impacted by autism have come together and are beginning to share their stories in support of one another. You modeled for many what leadership and vision looks like. You demonstrated how that vision can help a community come together. We cannot express enough our gratefulness for all that you said and did during your visit. We look forward to continuing our communications with you as your message continues to change the world.

Thank you for all that you do

Crystal Aminirad

Executive Director

Welcome and Keynote Speaker

Russell Lehmann | Speaker, Poet, Advocate

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Would love to have him speak to students. I will look over his videos to present to kiddos.

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Wonderful information and thank you for sharing your own experiences

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Very inspirational!

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AMAZING!!!

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This was fabulous!

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Russell Lehmann - Breakout Session

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I wish there was more time for Q&A. I felt talked to for an hour, which was fine, but I would have liked more of an interactive presentation.

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Again, very good speaker

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Great presentation

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This guy is so inspiring

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Grateful for his articulate, personal and very honest story shared with us

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Great perspective and reminders

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