PORTLAND, Ore. - A 7-year-old boy with autism made an unlikely friend while on his first solo flight from Las Vegas to Portland.
Alexa Bjornson's young son Landon was taking his first flight to Oregon to see his dad, the mother wrote on Facebook last week.
Bjornson said she sent Landon with a letter and $10 to give to whomever sat next to him. The letter said her son has high-functioning autism, so he might be nervous and ask "are we there yet" a lot, and to "please just make him feel safe and comfortable."
Landon sat next to Ben Pedraza in the front row of the plane.
"We clicked immediately. I doubt Landon ever meets a stranger. He was friendly to everyone he interacted with. He shared his gummy bears with 10-year-old Elijah, another solo flier, who was scared of flying and quickly became friends with Landon," Pedraza said of the experience of meeting his young new friend.
"My first thought upon reading the note and receiving the $10 was that this was a very concerned mother and I wished I could ease some anxiety by letting her know Landon was OK and that we were having fun," Pedraza said.
After the flight, Pedraza sent Landon's mother a note.
"Alexa, My name is Ben. I was Landon's seat neighbor for his flight to Portland. He did ask if we were there yet several times but he was a great travel buddy," Pedraza wrote to Bjornson. "We had a good time and played a few rounds of rock-paper-scissors. He's a great kid and you're a lucky mom."
Bjornson said she was "totally relieved and at ease" when she received the message from Pedraza.
"I felt a ton of admiration for Ben and for taking that picture for me and the message he sent! Just totally grateful and humble," she said. "Interacting with Landon was second nature to him and natural and he ENJOYED being there with him which is all I could ask for."
Pedraza also wrote in the letter to Bjornson that he appreciated the $10, "but it wasn't necessary."
"I donated it to Autism-Society.org in honor of Landon," Pedraza said.
When asked about the donation, Pedraza said it was "an easy choice."
"Alexa sent that with hopes of it having an impact on someone so the best I could do with it was to keep that going and do something with it that would maximize the impact she was trying to achieve. I thought the best way to do that would be to donate it to an organization that helps autistic children," he said. "Just keeping going what Alexa started."
When Alexa told Landon that she received a picture from his friend from the plane ride, her son said, "Yeah, I know mom."
"But he said it in a way with such happiness," the mother said. "Landon has not a clue how big this reaction is from the world, and what it means to other people. One day he will understand but at the moment he just likes Ben and knows that's his new friend from the plane."
She said she is especially grateful for Pedraza's kindness, writing that "there are still kind people in the world who make a difference like I try myself to do as well."
"We both just want other humans to show that same kind of love and support to ANY children in really any circumstance. But since this happened on a plane, we just hope people will start to change the way the situation feels or looks by going the extra mile and do anything. Say hello, give a high five, let them know you're proud of them, talk with them, play a game etc.," Alexa said. "Any small gesture can change a person's day or whole life."
Pedraza also said his heart broke when Landon told him that he was bullied.
"That resonated with me," Pedraza said. "I know that feeling, and I also have a nephew that knows that feeling all too well. He has cranial facial deformities and he gets bullied in school."
"It breaks my heart because no one should be treated that way and he is a wonderful, funny and loving person. Just like Landon," he said.
Now, Pedraza wants to spread the word to stop bullying.
"That's what I think Landon wants the most," he said. "I know it's what would make my nephew enjoy going to school instead of dreading it."
This story was reported from Los Angeles.