Next month, Juana and Mauro Rosales are taking their first airplane trip with their children, Matthew and Janis.
They were apprehensive about the upcoming flight. Their children, ages 4 and 5, are both autistic and traveling in an enclosed environment for a long period of time, surrounded by people and foreign noises, can be a challenge.
So the Rosales family drove from Santa Ana to Pacoima on Saturday, Oct. 19, to take a flight to Paris. Both kids, pulling their carry-on bags, checked in at the airport and passed through security screening handled by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents and boarded a plane. The entire “flight” to the “City of Lights” took less than 30 minutes, but included turbulence, flight attendants giving the customary safety instructions and passing out water, taking off and landing.
It was all done inside the Air Hollywood Studio, used by film and television productions to simulate flying. Inside an enormous facility on Weidner Street, the studio has recreated the airport atmosphere and also a plane carrying dozens of passengers with motion and sound effects.
An estimated 70 kids and their parents “took off” as part of Open Sky for Autism, a program that began five years ago to offer children living with autism and other developmental disabilities and their families the opportunity to gain confidence and comfort with air travel. They are given a real-time airport experience in a simulated commercial airport and flight.
The Rosales said the family appreciated taking part in the experience.
“Matthew is my kicker and screamer, but he really enjoyed it,” Juana said. “Matthew wanted to go on an airplane again.”
“Janis was a little more fidgety,” the mother added, but both kids passed the experience with flying colors.
The “trip” was very beneficial, she said, adding that she now knows what to expect. “Let’s just hope it’s like that next month.”
“Opens Up” Travel
Tim Williams, a spokesperson for Air Hollywood, says the company conducts the program twice a year and “it opens up travel for families.”
For families with autistic children, “preparation is really important” because of the sensory overload at the airport and inside planes, Williams said.
Once the families go through the free preparation program at Air Hollywood Studio, he said, “they know what they can expect when they go to a real airport and they won’t be shocked.”
Air Hollywood Studios would like to offer the program to families in other parts of the country. Their idea is to take to the program to other neighboring states using a similar simulated airplane set on a trailer truck they already have at their facility.
The studio program is held in conjunction with REACH, (Resource for Education, Advocacy, Communication and Housing). The Santa Fe Springs-based nonprofit offers personalized support for people with disabilities.
Darlene Hanson of REACH says traveling with autistic children can be challenging and scary for everyone involved, because — for the most part — “people with autism have problems with a lack of predictability.”
“Here, we can take our time, you’re not in a rush,” adds Talaat Captan, Air Hollywood Studio CEO, who first came up with the program after he noticed the challenges a family had on one of his flights.
The unique experience helps families practice and ascertain problems and challenges, like the families at the simulation who had to deal with meltdowns, so they can adapt and overcome them. The program is offered in the spring and fall, in anticipation of the very busy summer and holiday travel seasons.
“Educational Both Ways
Working pilots, flight attendants and TSA agents volunteer for the program to make it more realistic. And just like the families, it also helps them.
“It’s educational both ways,” said flight attendant Kaylyn Woosley, one of the volunteers. “As more families have children with autism, it helps us on how to assist the families to make travel more comfortable for them.”
The program has also been helpful for families like the Madrigals who traveled from Rancho Cucamonga with their children, Giovanni, 6, and Diego, 7, who both arrived at the “airport” properly attired in pilot outfits and with carry-on bags.
“We loved it. We’re going to be flying soon and he gets the feel of it,” said Adela Madrigal of Giovanni, who has autism. “This is a very good experience.”
Ruth Santiago felt the same way.
“We saw that in reality he was very calm. He didn’t react to the turbulence,” she said of her autistic son Omar, 9.
“We were worried (not knowing if) he could withstand being inside an airplane with a lot of people. [But] He wanted to go again, he really liked it.”