This guest post is by Elaine Hall, author of the memoir NOW I SEE THE MOON: A Mother, a Son, a Miracle and founder of The Miracle Project, a theatre and film arts program for children with special needs. She is also the mother of a fifteen-year-old son with autism. Discuss the book on Facebook and follow Elaine on Twitter @CoachE.
This is the second post in a three-post series about vacationing with your child who has autism; read the first post here.
Tip # 4 Expect the Unexpected. Go with the Flow (as if we had a choice!)
As well-prepared as Neal was for his flight, once he got to the airport, he was so excited he couldn’t contain himself. At the airport, as we waited to board, Neal stared at the huge planes out the windows. He had great anticipation. I turned my head for a moment. I then heard the sound of an alarm. Neal had raced to the exit door and tried to open it so that he could go outside and be with the airplanes. He panics. People glared at him. Security raced over. “It’s okay sweetheart,” I told Neal, trying to comfort him. To the security guard and the concerned onlookers, what could I say? “He has autism! He just likes airplanes!”
I remember early on in our diagnosis becoming outraged at others for making what I thought were “stupid comments” about my child and his behavior. Too, I resented their judgment of how I handled unexpected situations based on Neal’s reactions to circumstances. Now I understand that such reactions come from ignorance (just plain lack of knowledge). I now try to use every occasion as an opportunity to educate and sensitize others to the special needs of my very special child and others like him.
TACA (Talk About Curing Autism Now) has cards that you can present to strangers to help them understand autism.
Tip #5 Call the airline (cruise line or hotel) in advance and let them know you are traveling with a child who has special needs.
Our choice to go with the flow continued throughout the flight. Once we boarded the plane, Neal remembered all that we had practiced (backpack under his chair, seatbelt snapped closed, and ears covered at take-off). Success! Until beverage service does its thing in the aisle, blocking the path to the bathroom in coach (where we are seated) and Neal indicates that he needs to go NOW. This we hadn’t practiced.
At my husband’s suggestion, Neal and I make our way forward to the first class restroom where the flight attendant recites the usual “first class passengers only” spiel. As I try to explain the situation of my son’s special needs, a man from first class, clearly able to overhear our conversation, heads into the bathroom, pushing ahead of Neal. “He’s going to have to wait like everyone else,” she prattles on. As I start arguing with her, Neal sees an opening. He darts towards the bathroom door. And yet another man jumps in front of the door with the cocky condescension of a first-class citizen. Neal tantrums. “Return to your seats,” demands the flight attendant. Neal grabs her eyeglasses off her face. She panics and calls for security. All this happens within twenty seconds. I’m losing it. My husband steps in. He calms me and quiets Neal enough to get him to wait behind the cart as it passes each seat. He then takes Neal to the bathroom. I return to my seat, fuming. If that stupid flight attendant hadn’t been so stuck on her rules, if that guy in first class hadn’t been so arrogant, none of this would have happened. How can people be so cruel?
Now I know to phone the airline in advance and tell them about my child’s special needs and apprise the flight attendants, that if something unusual presents, they need not be afraid. My child has the best intentions and he has autism. Things happen. I believe that people really do want to help families like ours if we tell them how by sensitizing them to our circumstance.
Airlines are becoming more accommodating. When I do the work beforehand, they offer comforts including letting us board early, being kind, patient, and attentive to Neal. I have found that, generally, fear of the unknown creates discomfort and anxiety which manifests in judgment or unkindness. The more we proudly travel with our children or go to movies, malls, or neighbors’ homes, the more they too will come to learn compassion, understanding, and non-judgment, just as we have.
Tip # 6 When traveling long distances prepare activities to keep your child engaged.
For older children, this might include computer games, DVDs, magazines, etc. When Neal was younger, I wrapped up little “gifts” in aluminum foil and let him unwrap them periodically on the trip. I remember going to a party supply store and buying bags of favors, little match box cars, airplanes, bubbles on a string, animated characters, plastic pretend food, etc. Unwrapping each package took up to three minutes. He would then take another three minutes to play with the toy car, spin the wheels, flicker it in front of his eyes, and then line the cars on the tray before he would get bored again. I also wrapped his favorite foods in little packages, a couple crackers here, a piece of string cheese there, three apple slices. Once we we’re in the air, he was intrigued and distracted by his little presents. Once in a while he ran up and down the aisle. I just ran with him. Life happens!
Check back later this week for the rest of Elaine’s tips and subscribe to the Autism Speaks Blog to make sure you don’t miss out!