Family 'grateful' after American Airlines hosted mock flight for kids with autism: 'It was the perfect thing'

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Jesus, Michael and Annette Martinez participated in American Airlines' "It's Cool to Fly" program for children with autism. (Photo Courtesy of Annette Martinez)
Jesus, Michael and Annette Martinez participated in American Airlines' "It's Cool to Fly" program for children with autism. (Photo Courtesy of Annette Martinez)

A family in California is expressing their gratitude for American Airlines after they were able to participate in the airline’s “It’s Cool to Fly” program, which allowed 50 local children with autism take part in a mock flight to prepare them for air travel.

The Autism Society of San Diego told Yahoo Lifestyle that it was contacted to take part in the airline’s fifth annual event, which is held at at different airports across the country during April, which is National Autism Awareness Month. On Saturday, one of those simulated flights happened at San Diego International Airport, where families with children on the autism spectrum had the opportunity to get extra assurance that their child could handle the experience.

Annette and Jesus Martinez are parents to 8-year-old Michael Edward Martinez, whose form of autism places him just between those who are higher and lower functioning. Annette told Yahoo Lifestyle that flying is something that would likely make her son fairly anxious, but the mock flight experience came at the right time for the family.

“Getting used to something new, changes and everything are really difficult, and him not being in control,” she explained. “We’ve always driven because we didn’t know how Michael would do with flying, so when I got this email from the Autism Society of San Diego informing us that there was going to be this event, I told my husband that it was the perfect thing for Michael to do.”

The family, who lives in Calexico, Calif., has two older sons who live on military bases — one in Tampa Bay, Fla., and another in Seattle, Wash.— and the visits to see them have proven to be difficult journeys to make by car. But on April 20, the family will be taking their first flight out to Florida with Michael. Michael has his own calendar marking April 20, which has allowed him to get excited about the trip, and even made Saturday’s experience more valuable, his parents said. Although Jesus said that they’ve had to do work at home to ensure that Michael knew that they would just be taxing on the tarmac on Saturday, and not actually flying.

Jesus sat alongside his son, Michael, as they taxied around the tarmac. (Photo Courtesy of Annette Martinez)
Jesus sat alongside his son, Michael, as they taxied around the tarmac. (Photo Courtesy of Annette Martinez)

“He’s been saying, ‘Dad I wanna fly, I wanna go on a trip,’” Jesus said. “So we actually had to let him know like a week ahead that we’re gonna go practice on Saturday, fly out April 20, practice on Saturday. Otherwise, he probably was gonna think that we were gonna fly out and he would’ve probably gotten very disappointed.”

Annette added that they spent additional time with Michael’s specialized therapist to prepare him for the mock experience, and couldn’t have imagined that it would go so well.

“We did everything exactly like we were actually leaving, so we were so surprised how the airport was packed, people were getting off the planes, we had to let him know that we wait for people to get off the planes and then we’re gonna board,” she said. “So [the airline] didn’t do anything different so that when our kids actually go on a flight they don’t say, ‘We didn’t do this.’”

The children and their families even went through security and dealt directly with TSA, who took extra time to explain the process to those going through their metal detectors for the first time. American Airlines employees then took the children toward the windows by their gate to look at the plane that they were going to board. Once they were all onboard, the captain and flight attendants went through regular protocol prior to taxing around the tarmac. Then passengers went through preparation for “landing” before getting off the plane.

Michael and an American Airlines employee look out at the plane on the tarmac. (Photo Courtesy of Annette Martinez)
Michael and an American Airlines employee look out at the plane on the tarmac. (Photo Courtesy of Annette Martinez)

Now, the family is not only feeling more comfortable for their upcoming trip, but also thankful for the support of those who were involved in the experience — including the American Airlines volunteers as well as the other families who were on the mock flight.

“Not only did we have this experience, but we got to become friends with families,” Annette shares. “American Airlines, the crew, the airport, it was just amazing. I told my husband they couldn’t have done a better job, we’re very grateful for what they did for our children.”

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