The best (and hardest) advice we have been given on this journey has always been - exposure is key. It is in this advice that we find sensory friendly events and accommodations so helpful. From museums to movies, the more opportunities we have to practice filtering through situations containing a sensory smorgasbord, the better we are at developing successful coping when necessary - hopefully eliminating the dreaded fight or flight response to your inevitable distress.
Having said all that, this week The Arc of the Triangle, Inc. who supports children and adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities [I/DD] in the achievement of their personal goals and dreams through partnership and advocacy, teamed up with Allegiant Air and TSA to host a Wings for Autism event at our very own Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Practice navigating the airport and getting on a plane? Yes, Please!
You see Ad, if we are in a restaurant or a museum and you start showing signs of distress, we can easily remove you from the situation to help settle whatever has upset you. When you’re on an airplane thousands of feet in the air – not as easy. Nobody wants to be “that” family with the screaming kid, who God forbid gets kicked off the plane! Most people can’t tell when you are struggling, the difference between a meltdown or a tantrum, so the looks of judgment are thrown like confetti from every angle. It’s easy for people to say what they would do differently, but honestly unless they are faced with this life day in and day out – they really don't have any idea how they would react. Fact.
Our family has grown very accustomed to traveling by car. I for one am certainly always up for a good road trip, I mean who doesn’t love hours of playing “my father owns a grocery store”, catching up on gossip magazines and eating far too many Twizzlers? But unfortunately, there’s really no escaping the fact that going by plane is generally quicker (that is unless you have weather delays or such, but you get the point!)
Now insert an upcoming family wedding, and our jam-packed schedules meant that extra days of crawling along in the car weren’t in the cards, and family air travel was in our near future.
Let the exposure begin!
With such an amazing event for our Autism community, the attendance was limited to one adult per participating individual, meaning Miss Mom and Addie (and your polka dot toy iguana) were having a day date at RDU airport. We got this!
We arrived and luck was so far on our side, you were A-Okay with keeping headphones on today. Yay! That being said, the hustle and bustle of the lobby was a piece of cake and there were no signs of distress...yet. This got me now thinking that maybe the anxiety was all in my head, and you were going to totally rock this experience!
We checked in at the Arc welcome desk, and received our participation shirt that just so happened to match your cute purple noise-canceling headphones. Not wanting to upset you with a clothing change in the middle of all this, I slipped it over your existing shirt. You looked perfectly purple, 100% unplanned and crazy cute.
As we were standing waiting for the welcome and presentation to begin, we were approached by a very sweet photographer and film crew who were wondering if they could film our experience for the day, starting with a short interview with yours truly? I thought to myself - they were either going to get an amazingly happy glimpse at the excitement the airport can have, or a raw real view of why we needed such an event. We had a 50/50 shot of how this was going to go, so I happily obliged, hoping in my heart they didn’t regret picking us.
Almost immediately after I said yes, and they had ushered us aside for an interview, you became agitated. As they were trying to mic me up, you stood in front of me repeating “arms, arms, arms” that’s what you say when you want your shirt off – clearly you were done with wearing two shirts and wanted that cute purple shirt off and NOW! Daddy always says you can feel my anxiety, and perhaps that’s what was going on here? My introverted self was about to be interviewed and our every move (predictably unpredictable) from meltdown to happiness all caught on film for the world to see – no pressure.
All seemed to be going OK until they asked what having events like this meant to me? Addie, I lost it. Immediately started crying. I honestly can’t remember what my exact response even was, and I’m sure I could’ve more eloquently explained it than I probably did in my blubbering mess, but it was somewhere along the lines of just wanting the same opportunities to do what so many other families seem to do effortlessly. To worry less and really enjoy the adventure in the moment instead of holding my breath and feeling the guilt of putting you in situations you find stressful.
Now that they realized I’m kind of a hot mess, it was time to move this party along and get through security. This was where I assumed our biggest hurdle would be for the day. Anyone who knows you knows waiting is not your forte.
As we approached the security entrance, I realized we had been given our own entrance today. In the moment I felt about 15 bricks fall off my shoulders not having to wait in that snake of a long line with the general public, but then I kind of felt this was unrealistic to an actual experience and we'd normally be waiting in that crazy long line - suddenly I wished that just maybe special needs families would always get their own line. I love you but trust me, anyone who has waited in line near you in the past has probably wished for the same!
Almost effortlessly going through security I was reminded to expect the unexpected, seeing how I thought this was going to be our biggest struggle now I really didn’t know what to expect for the rest of this adventure!
Next up was finding our gate and officially walking through what to seemed to be the most sensory overwhelming part of the airport. It’s all a lot to take in with people walking, running, and gliding along on a sidewalk that is moving for them. The smells, the sounds, the lights and the ever so unexpected balloon arches! What the heck?! Balloon arches? I didn’t see balloons coming in any part of this day! Insert our first meltdown. Yep, today balloons were not our friend and we had to take a time out to do some deep breathing and counting before continuing on.
Making our way past two more balloon arches we finally made it to our gate. Next up was a very long wait. Time to practice patience, Addie! You had a love/hate relationship with this part of the day. While the wait was long, it was understandable with everyone learning the process of getting on the plane. Knowing waiting wasn’t your jam, I decided to wait until the last minute to jump into line, completely unaware we were about to approach our biggest challenge yet. The tunnel.
I now know something you hate worse than just purely waiting – waiting in a hot, humid acoustically challenging tunnel for about a solid 15 minutes. You were angry and not afraid to let everyone know! All the deep breathing, counting, or songs I could serenade you with didn’t seem to help ease any part of this tunnel experience for you. Patience. We need to work on patience.
With the line of people finally beginning to move, we were officially getting on the plane. The flight attendants were SO sweet in welcoming you to the flight, your response to them, not so much. You were over this and needed to get to where you needed to be – NOW!
Finally, in our seats, buckled and feeling like we had just finished the Iron Man in the tunnel, I took a deep breath and sunk into my seat, I was exhausted. Being trapped in that humid tunnel for so long made the airplane air that was a bit cooler feel amazing! I opened your shade, so you could look out the window - to which you kept repeating “This amazing! This amazing!” You were happy and any stress we had to get to this point seem to have literally melted away.
Feeling somewhat relaxed or as relaxed as you can be on an airplane, it was time to give our attention to the flight attendant as she gave the safety demonstration. As she began to talk, I glanced back to see if you were paying attention only to see you looking down in your lap - I, unfortunately, knew exactly what was happening - you peed. You then looked at me and said, “Ms. Mom I need baffroom please.” Not gonna lie, I laughed in my head thinking, clearly not anymore ya don’t!
As I sat waiting for the flight attendant to finish up with the safety review I couldn’t help but wonder what the film crew was thinking of all this? Had they just seen what had happened? Had regret set in having chosen us? Were they hoping for something less eventful and more positive? No turning back now, right?!
As the safety demonstration came to an end, I politely pulled the flight attendant aside and explained the situation. She was very calm and gracious in helping us (in case anyone was curious there’s a whole cleanup/sanitizing process for such accidents) and we also learned that airplane bathrooms are nearly impossible to change someone's clothes in! Especially if you’re already kind of jumpy and need assistance!
Successfully changing your clothes, it was time for this adventure to come to an end. But not without one last round of agitation waiting to get off the plane - that dang tunnel!
While this opportunity was absolutely amazing, my only recommendation to improve such an event would be to do it more often! There is something to finding calm in the masses. Personally, I know I was far less anxious (making you less anxious) today than I normally would be because there was a large group of us all together. The more practice we have in certain situations, the more our anxiety will begin to fade when we don’t have that safety in numbers.
All in all, this was an amazing experience, it wasn’t without its struggles, but it gave us a chance to take it all in and know how to better prepare for such travel. While I’m confident there will never be an airline specifically for families like ours (One can dream though!) we will continue to do the very best we can, and hope others will see our efforts and have some extra patience along the way.
We did it Ad.