Delta Flight Attendant with Aspergers Creates Art Project to Ease Flyer Anxiety

Over 8,000 works of passenger art have been created on Delta flight attendant Jewely Van Valin’s flights

By Debra Muzikar

After 9/11 airline passengers were more irritable because of heightened security and a reduction in amenities. Delta Air Lines’ flight attendant Jewely Van Valin wanted to do something to ease her passengers’ stress. She had no idea when she pulled out some crayons that the art project would take on a life of its own.

I had the opportunity to interview Jewely for the Art of Autism about growing up on the autism spectrum without a diagnosis, her Aspergers, her career as a flight attendant and the unique art project she brought to Delta.

Q. How long have you worked for Delta?

I started flying in 1978 with Western Airlines. We merged with Delta Air Lines in 1987. 2018 will be my 40th year of flying.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for your art project?

A. It was a cost saving measure after 9/11, to use paper tray table liners, as a substitute for our linen table clothes. The first customer I laid the paper table liner on his table top looked up and rolled his eyes. I said to myself this needs a crayon!

The following week I brought crayons. After I put the paper down on their tray tables, I tossed a crayon down and said, “Get Busy!”

Q. Is the art on display?

A. They are not on display at this time. They have been displayed at art shows and at museums in the past. The most recent show was in 2007 at Terminal 5 in LAX.

Q. When were you diagnosed with Aspergers?

A. I have only recently discovered that I am on the spectrum of Autism. When I was 14, there was little known about Autism and I was correctly diagnosed with severe Dyslexia, but nothing more. Finally learning about my Autism this year has put so much into perspective, I was actually so relieved to understand why I am the way I am.

Q. Can you share memories about your childhood – not having a diagnosis at the time. What was your childhood like?

A. I did not talk until I was four. I didn’t know how to formulate a sentence. Syntax was so very foreign to my abilities to communicate. My family helped me develop the limited social skills I had during those adolescent years.

I was the youngest of four and had very few friends. I would spend hours alone quietly playing with the plastic “Cowboy & Indian” sets passed down from my siblings’ collections. My sister told me much later, “We learned to work around you, as you would stay on the kitchen floor crying.” Yes, I cried a lot. I did not know how to comprehend what was going on around me and was not able to tell anyone what I was feeling. I did not know what was expected of me or how to respond in any given situation. I was lost so much of the time.

I knew the basics of saying, “Yes” and “No” in a whiny voice. My mother would tell me to go into my room to pick up my toys, make my bed, and dress myself, but I could not remember any sequencing of her request. I would just stand in the middle of my room crying, looking around to try to understand what was expected of me to do and feeling overwhelmed.

I would spend hours listening to my little records on my record player. I would listen over and over the same story: “Little Red Riding Hood.” I was soothed by the voice, watching the large “L” in Victorian rosed script printed on the red label, as well as an etched Little Red Riding Hood girl above the “L.” I would listen to each word the storyteller would say, watching the etched girl go round and round taking in exactly where she was positioned with the large “L,” as the words would come over the phonograph. Eventually, my mother would come in from the other room to suggest we turn the record over. I would cry when the record was turned over.

I also spent hours riding my pony, Bronco, in the hills of the Alisal Ranch. Our home butted up to all private property. We were able to ride right outside our corral to this magic world of intense beauty and complete and utter silence, which was only occasionally punctuated with the distant sound of passing traffic. But, more intensely, one learned the language of the “Country,” which completely impressed on all your senses. I was fully engaged and safe within these parameters. I knew I was protected in the hills, even when I was not with my siblings.

I have known the Lord, as my friend, since a very early age. He has been standing over my right shoulder. I would learn through the years, when I could not find any words to say, to just look over my shoulder to ask, “What now?” I was comforted by Him. I called on Him often (and still do)!

I do not learn how to learn in the “normal” ways others do. I can only think outside the box. I don’t have any “Do’s” or “Don’t’s” in my head. It seemed like other children would get their social cues from parents, teachers, other children, etc… For some reason the ground rules of human behavior were more difficult for me to pick up … they were basically foreign. I had to start from nothing and build from there, and it seemed to take much longer than everyone else (and still does!).

Q. Can you tell me how your Aspergers has affected your work life?

A. Thankfully, I am in a safe port with my company. I work for Delta Air Lines and have always been surrounded by highly skilled and professional people who help me nurture a safe working environment and make my job so rich and rewarding. I can ask questions when I find myself limited in my learning skills, and they are always met and answered in a nonjudgmental way.

Q. You are a photographer yourself. Can you talk about your process?

A. I have a photographic memory. I can refer back to each frame of my life in my mind’s eye any time no matter how far back. I can tell you everything about the time, day, surrounding events, conversations going on around me, all the emotions everyone is having in that frame, as well as what was going on inside me, what I was feeling. Photography is like that for me – it captures a moment in time with subtext fully preserved and intact.

Jewely's photographs
Jewely’s photography

Q. Anything else you’d like to say about your Aspergers?

A. I’ve found I have a unique perspective, and even doors that I thought were closed to me because of my limitations have eventually opened. I am thankful. It is a blessing in disguise.

Q. Has your art project helped any Autistic children on your flights, and if so can you talk about that?

A. I can’t say it has helped per se, but I have had many autistic children draw for me. I would say they are extremely focused. They pick a subject that they relate to in their world. Their lines are very precise in relation to what the object is. Some use only bright colors in their creations. They are all fully engaged until they are finished.

Q. Can you share some of your passenger’s art with the Art of Autism

A. Sure. The stories are as important as the art.

Joe’s Dragon – Joe stated he likes drawing dragons because “… you get to make something anatomical but without the burden of comparison to something real…”

Honolulu

One passenger rediscovered her love of art while on a flight to Hololulu. Julie wanted to express the vibrant nature of Honolulu both on land and the sea. On land are angles and colors in geometry. In the ocean the shapes are soft and fluid, filled with color. Together everything is constantly in motion moving synergistically.


“I drew every day when I was little, and whenever I didn’t know what to draw I defaulted to dragons and unicorns (because they’re awesome),” Olivia

Maui
Maui

This rendition of Maui was of a remembrance of when the passenger was in kayak and was jumped by a pod of whales – Mama, Baby and 2 Escorts. They played with them for 20 minutes before getting ready for their trip back to Alaska.

***

Jewely tells me at one time she had over 200 of the passenger art collection framed. Now she has 20 framed and 8 on walls in her home.

The article above is attributed to Jewely Van Valin not as a Delta spokesperson. I reached out to Delta about their autism initiatives and this is the answer I received.

Delta Initiatives on Autism and Disability

“Delta employees systemwide participate in autism events throughout the year, including The Wings for Autism, Taking Flight for Autism, and other familiarization tours in several locations. The familiarization tours provide families with an opportunity to go through several components of the travel experience, from security to boarding an empty plane.

Every year, Delta employees system wide also participate in autism events throughout the month of April as part of the airline’s initiative to raise awareness during Autism Awareness Month, and to improve the air travel experience of all, including for those on the autism spectrum.

Delta, in partnership with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and autism advocacy group The Arc, launched the Atlanta Airport’s first multisensory room on April 12, 2016, to provide a calming, supportive environment for customers on the autism spectrum. The multisensory room in Atlanta has been welcoming more than 40 guests per month – and growing – as part of the monthly familiarization tours and individual requests.

Delta people are also active in the company’s ABLE Network on Disability (ABLE). ABLE is one of several Business Resource Groups supported by the Global Diversity and Inclusion team. The group is committed to making Delta the best place to work for employees with disabilities by promoting inclusion, respect for differences, equal opportunity, and diversity in the workplace.”

8 Comments

  • Thank you Jewely and Debra for sharing the inspirational story of your life. I have 2 grandchildren with Autism and your story will be very helpful for my family God Bless You

  • Thanks to Miss Jewely for picking one my drawings, “The Whale Encounter”, as an example of her Airplane Art. She is quite a lady. My wife and I looked forward to seeing her as we flew from LAX to OGG for she made the last leg of 22 hour day more enjoyable. Bless you Miss Jewely
    Opala

  • Working with Jewely you wouldn’t know she had a disability. She’s known by many for her effortless hard work and consistently kind acts. Reading this article about Jewely warms my heart and she’s a great example of who I strive to be like as I continue my career with Delta Air Lines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *