Flying with autism can be a challenge. We have only attempted it twice. Five years ago we went to Seattle, Washington. I was not a blogger back then but I remember the trip going fairly well and the airport staff being very accommodating. We were nervous about getting through security without a meltdown so we practiced “going through security” at home a few times before the trip and we read a social story about airports and the whole process. Tate was eight years old, and although he was big for his age, he still was identifiable to everyone as a child. At the time he was just getting over five-years of anxiety that revolved around his shoes. Taking his shoes off in public was a big deal, a really big deal. But like I said, he was beginning to outgrow that and we practiced at home. He knew exactly what to expect and he did a fantastic job.
This time I hoped things would go just as smoothly. We talked at home about what to expect. We watched a video online that was supposed to prepare children to fly. Tate was confident he was ready to fly. Just as I have found in many other situations though, how well things go often depend on one single employee’s attitude or behavior. One person can mean the difference between success or failure.
At the airport this morning, as we passed from the unsecure area into the screening area, I coached Tate through the removal of his coat and his shoes, which he did as slowly and methodically as he does everything. There is no rushing Tate. He was holding up the line. People behind us were patient and I was pretty sure they could tell he had a disability. They might have even heard me talking to the guard who stamped our boarding pass only seconds before. The guard had raised his eyebrows a little when I accompanied my six-foot tall son up to the counter to help him, so I explained, “This is my son. He has autism.” I had been afraid the guard might ask him for an ID because of his size, not realizing he is only thirteen. Tate becomes more socially awkward than usual when he is in unfamiliar surroundings and put on the spot.
Once Tate got his shoes and coat into bins and onto the rollers, I realized he was wearing a watch. I asked him to take it off. He did this, slowly. The people behind us were beginning to get bins and go on around us and that was fine. No one was critical. In fact, most smiled at me as I apologized for being “in the way.” And then, one of the guards, an older man with a full head of gray hair, began barking at Tate and I to speed it up and move along. I looked up and said, “We are doing the best we can. He has a DVD player in his backpack. Should we take it out?” He snapped, “There is no time to take electronics out of the bag now. You are holding up the line.” So…. I put Tate’s backpack into a bin, my computer bag into another bin, slid them down the rollers, and we walked through the scanner. Tate went first and he was beginning to look intimidated. Rushing Tate will automatically slow him down. Tate went into the scanner. I modeled for him how he should raise his hands. As soon as he was on the other side, he began asking me for his watch. I went into the scanner but in my rush to stay with Tate and appease the annoyed guard, I neglected to remove my own shoes, so I had to go back out of the scanner and put my shoes in a bin, me on one side and Tate on the other, him asking me to find his watch. I apologized to the guard and explained that I was frustrated because of another guard’s rudeness. She knew exactly what I was speaking of and apologized to me for his behavior. I made it through the scanner to help Tate who was very nervous about that beloved watch. Guess who was now on the other side of the scanner now too? The nice gray headed man! And he was loudly asking who had left their things on the rollers. Of course the things he referred to were Tate’s. The guard was rushing us to move faster. I helped Tate grab his shoes, coat, and backpack, and we moved off to the side. I showed him I had his watch and I shoved it into my pocket so not to hold up anyone who did not want to wait while he slowly put that watch back on his wrist. Priority was getting those shoes back on and finding the rest of the family. I grabbed my own things. My shoes had just come through the machine. I had easily found my coat and my shoes, but my computer bag was nowhere to be seen. It should have come through right after Tate’s backpack. Tate was still worried about that watch and I needed to catch up to the rest of the family so I actually forgot for a few seconds that I was still missing that bag and walked away. After we found the rest of the family I exclaimed, “My computer bag! I forgot it!” So…. back I went to the security screening area. There was the same gray-headed guard, holding up my bag and asking loudly, “Whose bag is this?” I thought, “Seriously. There are six or eight guards working here. And I get to deal with him again!” I told him it was my bag and apologized for leaving it. He asked if there was a laptop inside and I told him there was. He asked why I had not removed it from the bag when I sent it through the scanner. I told him that he had told me that we were holding up the line and that I did not have time to remove electronics. He snapped that I had only asked about a DVD player in a backpack. I took a deep breath and I said, “My son has autism. I was trying my best to help him get through security but you were pushing us and trying to hurry us so it was hard to deal with both him and you. You were rude to us and my son was moving as fast as he could move. We would have gone through faster if you would have been nicer.” He grumpily replied, “There was a long line behind you” as if that totally excused his rudeness. I noticed that other guards were listening and he did too. I was glad. I’m not so sure he was. He removed my laptop from my bag, scanned it with a wand, put it back into my bag. He handed it to me without another word. There were so many things I wanted to say but instead I muttered, “Thank you.”
So, when you ask how Tate has handled our travels so far, I would have to say, with the exception of ten minutes of intolerance from one grumpy man, a small ‘bout of anxiety over his watch being off his wrist for mere minutes, and the fact that I forgot to bring his chap stick after I assured him I had it, Tate has had a great experience. Did you know the same lip balm you can buy at Walmart in Kansas for about one dollar costs $4.25 in the St. Louis airport? Considering the hours it took to get from Kansas to New York City and the many people we have come in contact with, one intolerant man, a few minutes of anxiety, and the inflated price of a chap stick, has definitely not put much of a damper on things for him or any of the rest of us.