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Students go behind the scenes Allison K. Sampité | Sat, Jun 30 2012 12:00 PM

Three Chula Vista teens with autism had a unique opportunity recently to participate in a two-week film camp alongside several other students.

The program was free for San Diego military families with autistic children and their siblings, ages 9 to 21.

The man behind the camp is Hollywood director, writer, producer and actor Joey Travolta.

Autism Care and Treatment Today!, a non-profit organization that provides care and treatment to children with autism, and Cox Communications contacted Travolta to bring the opportunity to county residents.

Travolta created the Inclusion Films workshop in 2006 to educate developmentally disabled individuals by teaching them entry-level film production.

During the workshop, students worked with professional crews to write scripts, build sets, film and edit.

Travolta started off as a special education teacher in New Jersey, citing it as a natural fit for him because he was always rooting for the underdog and having special needs friends. He focused on writing scripts on different subjects and making a film to teach with.

“I’ve always had a theatrical theme to my teaching,” he said.

The film camps came about later when his daughter Rachel, who was in high school at the time, asked Travolta to help her put together a festival. During that time, Travolta began mentoring a 15-year-old autistic teen who wanted to create a film on what it’s like to live with autism.

In 2005, Joey produced the documentary “Normal People Scare Me.” The short film quickly gained notoriety.

Travolta said the practical workshops not only provide hands-on vocational film industry training for individuals with disabilities but also help develop confidence and creativity.

Travolta said the camps give the kids a chance to shine and are extremely rewarding.

“You’re impacting their lives,” he said. “Making a film is a very powerful tool. It’s empowering to people to see a concept in your head and see that visually come to life.”

The camps typically include 50 kids — a mixture of 35 with autism and 15 who don’t have developmental disabilities — who are broken into age appropriate groups and responsible for producing a three- to seven-minute film.

“I’ve been watching these kids grow and it’s really cool,” Travolta said.

The camp theme this year is “30 Minutes” — a spin-off of CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Shayne Hayslip and his younger brother Alex were both diagnosed with autism when they were young.

The diagnosis has varying degrees, including difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

Shayne, 17, who attends Eastlake High School, is interested in animation and video game design.

“I’d like to design video games in the future,” he said. “I want to take this as an opportunity to learn more about animation.”

Shayne was one of the main writers for the script and also acts in the film.

“I feel like it is broadening my horizon,” Shayne said. “It gives me new outlooks on things. I’ve been able to meet more people that have autism like myself.”

His mother, Sandi, said the camp is a wonderful opportunity for her sons.

“I thought it would really benefit the boys and open up an experience for them, technologically and socially,” she said.

“It’s a chance for them to experience a different genre in an inclusive environment.”

Elijah Spearman, 19, is a student at Bonita Vista High School in the transition program and is in the editing group with Shayne.

“It’s fun,” Elijah said. “I have made a lot of friends in editing.”

Elijah’s dad, Darius Spearman, said he signed him up for the camp to expand his interest.

“For a while I’ve been wanting to get Elijah into film,” Darius said. “He’s very creative and meticulous. I thought he’d be really good at editing and set design.”

Elijah is also speech and language impaired.

“It gives him opportunities to expand his language,” Darius said. “It’s awakened a little bit of interest in him.”

Travolta said the goal is to showcase their film at the San Diego Film Festival on Sept. 29.

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