"I'm going to China, but we won't really," said an imaginative Gena Catanese, 5, of North Wales, accompanied by her parents and her sisters, Isabella, 6, and Emma, 3.
Just 18 months ago, Gena had a traumatic travel experience on vacation in Orlando, Fla. She expected to preboard the plane with her family, but the protocol was she could preboard only with one parent.
Gena became agitated and "overstimulated," said her mother, Melanie Catanese. "There was no way she was able to fly home that day."
After receiving a frantic call, Gena's pediatrician, Wendy Ross, at Albert Einstein Medical Center, phoned and faxed letters to the Orlando airport.
"I thought, 'This can never happen to one of my families again,' " said Ross, who sees children with learning disabilities, mental retardation, autism, and attention-deficit disorder. "Gena was saying she would never fly again. It was heartbreaking."
So Ross contacted Philadelphia airport and Rick Dempsey, head of the airport's Americans With Disabilities Act review committee.
"She wanted to bring a simulated airport experience for children with autism and their families," Dempsey said. "The committee thought it was a great idea. The [Transportation Security Administration] bought into it. We even got an airline, Southwest, to buy into the idea."
Since then, there have been three "mock" flights.
"We asked the crews if they would mind sticking around for 30 to 40 minutes and go through a mock turnaround on a flight, as if we were flying somewhere," said John Minor, Southwest's station manager here.
"We let them know that autistic children are very literal, so we don't want to say, 'We're flying to Disneyland,' " Minor said. "We just say, 'This is a test run.' "
Frontier Airlines plans a simulated flight for autistic children Dec. 11; US Airways Group has one planned for January. British Airways also has expressed interest.
In the spring, Ross trained 130 airport and airline employees on autism, which is diagnosed in one in 100 children annually.
"It's not something you outgrow, but if you get really good therapy, you can cope better, compensate better," Ross said. "My concern is that so many families do not go out into the community. It's unrealistic to think that these kids are going to be employable one day if they are not comfortable being in community venues as they grow up."
Ross went to Einstein four years ago from Children's Hospital in Boston and teamed up with psychologists, a speech and language pathologist, and occupational therapist Roger Ideishi from University of the Sciences to start programs for autistic children at the Please Touch Museum, Garden State Discovery Museum, Adventure Aquarium, and the Academy of Natural Sciences.
"Currently, we are consulting with the Smithsonian," she said.
Autistic children have difficulty with communication and socialization, and oversensitivity to sensory information and transition, Ross said. "New or unexpected things that have lights, sounds, movement can make them more likely to get upset or have a tantrum."
Her goal is to expand Philadelphia's program to airports nationwide, "everything from curb to cabin and back."
Sabra Townsend, whose son Brandon, 13, is autistic and was on the latest pretend flight, is part of a volunteer-run community-support group (Autism, Sharing & Parenting) that meets monthly at, alternately, the Center for Autism on Ford Road in Philadelphia and Community Behavioral Health, at Eighth and Market.
Townsend is helping Ross compile a list of families interested in practice flights. For information, call Einstein's department of developmental pediatrics at 215-456-6083.
After Saturday's training, Sheila and Derek Green of East Mount Airy said their son, Julian, 9, was ready to fly to Walt Disney World.
"He'll completely get it the next time he gets on an airplane," Sheila Green said. "We're going to Disney World as soon as possible!"
Find more photos of the flight at go.philly.com/autism1
More information on autism at go.philly.com/autism2
Contact staff writer Linda Loyd
at 215-854-2831 or firstname.lastname@example.org.