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Helping those with autism to get off the ground
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LATHROP – There’s no way that Geoffrey Lum-Perez would ever get on a plane.

The 26-year-old, who was diagnosed with autism when he was young, wouldn’t even ride an elevator because he was afraid of confined spaces. The thought of being in a closed cabin – let alone the process that involves getting to that cabin in the first place – nullified any chance of air travel or ever leaving the ground.

And while he isn’t going to be jet-setting to Monaco anytime soon, Lum-Perez will get the chance to feel like a world traveler.

On Wednesday, Sept. 17, Lum-Perez and his mother Connie will be a part of the United Airlines’ Autism Inclusion Resources Airport Program and the San Francisco International Airport. It is a program that gives people with autism the chance to experience what it’s like to check bags, pick-up boarding passes, go through security, wait for the plane to arrive and board like a regular passenger.

They’ll get to do everything, said Connie Lum-Perez, but take-off.

“There’s that scene at the beginning of Rain Man – which Geoffrey watches all the time – where Dustin Hoffman is walking with Tom Cruise to the gate and he suddenly freaks out and decides that he doesn’t want to get onto the plane and that’s why they end up driving across the country,” she said. “That’s what it’s like for a lot of people with autism. With Geoffrey, it’s the thought of not being grounded and having something beneath your feet.

“He talks about the plane falling and doesn’t understand the idea that it can go through the air. This will hopefully work to provide some of these people with autism a chance to experience some of those things that all of us get to experience. Geoffrey is 26 and now he’ll get the chance to do this.”

Lum-Perez was contacted by Manteca resident and United Airlines staffer Pat Langdon about the program. It is a joint collaboration between the Open Doors Organization and the airline. Created in 2011 by Dr. Wendy Ross, the program is intended to give people with autism real-world experiences that they might not otherwise be exposed to.

A developmental disorder, autism and the diagnoses that fall on the spectrum carry a series of behaviors that range from case-to-case – some demonstrated by repetitive actions and others by a resistance to change of any type. The number of children diagnosed with autism over the last decade has risen dramatically – attributed by some in the health field as environmental factors, other as a better understanding of the condition, and others as a combination of both.

And exposure to the outside world can be both a fascinating and scary thing to a person with autism.

Keeping Geoffrey sheltered, Lum-Perez said, is only a detriment to him.

“He has to feel his way through the world and sometimes it can be difficult for him because it’s very concrete – things are fixed and they are the way that they are,” she said. “But I think that if we can learn how to help these people feel their way through it would help so much with that process.”