Monday, 5 November 2012

5/11 Flying and Aspergers

Its difficult to know where to start a blog when it has been a while since I wrote. Sorry - this may be a long one!...So much has happened, and in the last two weeks I have barely been at home. I worked for two days in Warwick helping my sister at a conference she co-ordinates. Great fun to be back in the corporate world for just a short time, and a break from my usual life. I then had the best three days you could wish for, staying in Wokingham, and visited by a good friend from Canada. She is my husbands cousin, but since she feels more like a sister, I want to adopt her as my family too :) For a whole weekend we chatted, drank wine, and behaved like teenagers. On both parts I think it was much needed, and left me refreshed and ready to take on the next bit of life. Sometimes being away from your family gives you time to really straighten out your priorities and go back with more focus. But no rest for the wicked, I was only home for one night, as the next day I was taking Tom for his first flight abroad. I might add, that although we returned 4 days ago, it has taken me this long to write about it as Alex has been ill, and in all his frustration threw the new laptop, smashed the screen, and I now have acquired a replacement monitor. An expensive week.

This blog will have nothing of Lucie, or Alex, but what I wanted to share was my first experience of taking my son Thomas (now 7 years old) on a flight, and what it was like travelling with him, and his Asperger's perspective. The trip was set up a few weeks ago when a good friend I have known since University days, had kindly invited me and Tom to visit her in Geneva, where she had just moved to. It was even better as she has two children around Thomas's age, so he would have company whilst there. So we booked an Easyjet flight. I have always wondered what it would be like trying to get our boys on a flight, and what issues may arise, and as is typical, its never the things you think of that come up. As Dave and I both have family abroad, we are aware one day a flight may be a very real option, so it was better to trial when there was less at stake.

In preparation I had ordered the great booklets you can get from Manchester Airport which helps children with ASD familiarise themselves with the flying process, and deal with what they may encounter in the airport. So I went through that with Tom, and discussed such things like security, X-ray scanners, waiting, etc. All seemed fine. I was asked by people, "Is Tom excited about going away?" No. Tom does not seem to do excitement, he deals with the here and now, what happens in the future seems of little relevance (unless it is Christmas and involves presents!). So I put up with his nonchalant approach, then things changed the night before departure. In the bath he suddenly declared he would not be going, he wants to give back his ticket, and he would not be getting on any plane. On asking why, he said he would be too cold in Geneva. This had been something he had murmured about, so I had specially bought thermals etc for him. The irony is the temperature was very similar to Chorley, but there was no persuading him. During complete meltdown, Dave bribed him with the prospect of buying a magazine and sweets at the airport. Not a tactic we would normally resort to, but we needed leverage, and it was a temporary fix.

The day of travel, I used momentum to try and get Tom into the idea of flying. We had to first drop off our Canadian visitor and Lucie with grandparents, then take Alex to Chester where my parents were looking after him, then my Dad would take us to the airport. It all went pear shaped as Tom got car sick, I think more through stress. We just got to the airport drop off point, I got Tom out quick, but he immediately started kicking and hitting me, screaming and going wild. At this point trying to get back in the car saying he was going home. I need not say how stressed I am. All this is supposed to be a great treat for him, and right now I can't understand why I am putting him through hell. But I needed to know if we could ever fly with Tom, and I wasn't going to wait for a big trip where our options were slim to work out what I was dealing with. So I persisted hoping it was just adjustment. I told my Dad to drive off, so Tom was clear about our options. I stood in a car park with Tom looking decidedly hacked off, and decided to get him into the airport.

From there the momentum of transit seemed to keep him going. He seemed calm if not unimpressed by his surroundings, but did ask the odd question, so I think in all it was going fine. We bought the promised sweets and magazine, which was a great distraction when needed. Security got sticky as I had to get a proper search as I always set off the alarms (do you think one day my Mum will remember I have a metal pin in me somewhere, or maybe my brain is made of lead)..anyway, i think we looked stressed, and Tom and I look nothing alike, so we got pulled aside. As they frisked me a second time, the man took Tom aside to ask him some questions. I could overhear. Tom didn't understand him, as he phrased them in a way Tom would not get. He tried to ask Tom where he was going, he answered 'With my Mum', which got the man confused, then he told Tom to take off his shoes, mine were already off. Thankfully I had told Tom that may happen, so he was cool with it. I shouted across to Tom what the man was trying to ask, and then he said 'Geneva'. After a thorough check we were let through. No hard feelings. As a passenger I prefer security to err on the side of caution!

At boarding, facing a huge queue, I lost all social graces, and when parents with young children were called forward first, I rudely decided that meant us, and took Tom to the front. Technically it is for under fives only, but I was on a knife edge with his behaviour, and with the plane fully booked was very worried we would not get two seats together (the price of low cost airlines!). My bullishness paid off, and we boarded first, and sat together. Tom still emotionless. The first stroke of luck came when after some confusion with a family next to us, the lady next to me moved. There was one empty seat on the plane, and it was next to me.....result!! Then take off. I was explaining to Tom all that was happening, and the plane gathered speed on the runway...finally!!! Tom gives a half crooked smile, which for me felt like a giant grin, and he seemed mildly content. As soon as we were through the clouds, I could see him engaged. He started to chatter, which made me realise he had barely spoken till this point. He commented on the clouds looking like a 'fluffy land', and talked with imagination. These days I am not such a relaxed flyer, and as Dave would testify I squeeze his hand till crushed and white when we take off. I think he thought I was utterly relaxed during childbirth compared to what he has to put up with me being like on a plane. But with no Dave next to me, I had to look totally chilled, and hide it all.

I also discovered at this point Tom does not know how to suck sweets. Yep - don't know why. Not that we ever have sweets you suck, but on a plane you do. Despite my instruction he accidently swallowed two Werthers Originals whole before learning the skill. Personally I'd rather my ears didn't pop than have two toffees stuck in me, but there you go.

He reviewed the safety card as the flight attendant instructed. He then told me we were not sitting correctly and our hands were in the wrong position. They needed to be placed exactly as in the picture. It took some reassuring him that was only in the event of a problem, and we could sit any way we liked until then.

Ten minutes in he decided he needed the toilet. Tom went in alone, I sat down again, as I had waited a while for him and checked on him, but he assured me all was fine. All getting slightly embarrassing. I think it was well over ten minutes, but Tom being on the toilet is like any kid in dreamland, it is not a rushed activity. A queue was building, and Tom took his time. Its hard to look like you don't own him when he sits down next to you. Bless him, after all he had been through, I thought it better not to rush him. Ho hum.

A little Swiss boy sat in front of us, intrigued by Tom he spent most of the flight staring. I tried to get Tom to say Bonjour, but he couldn't even make eye contact. The boy was fascinated by Tom's magazine and toy I had bought him. Strange seeing kids trying to engage but not know how to. In the airport I found a toy that we have had a few of in the past, we call it a stress ball. It is a squdigy ball filled with goo, you squeeze, and then pop down the bits that pop out. Great fun, and I thought would keep him occupied while flying. It worked a treat, until a crucial moment right after landing. Tom quietly said...."Mum...." I looked down to see exploded fluorescent gloop everywhere all over Toms hands and dripping down. I grabbed a sick bag and chucked it all in, gathering the mess and doing my best to clean up me and Tom. A rather unimpressed flight attendant was handed the glow in the dark goo upon exit.

I have to say landing alongside Mont Blanc and the Swiss Alps was the most stunning landing I have ever had in a plane. I was in awe of the scenery. I asked Tom what he thought of it, to which without thought responded "I've seen better, cause I have seen crystals in a cave". Oh - not sure when, but fair enough. Ask a silly question.

So that was my odd flying experience, it seemed surreal. Tom's reactions were hard to read, I think mixed with excitement, fear, trepidation, enjoyment and nonchalance. I have learned not to ask too many questions, and just accept his reactions for what they are. The theme continued throughout the trip. I won't take you in to finer details, but he surprised me with what did or didn't interest him and his comments were abstract.  In visiting Geneva city the next day, he seemed unimpressed by the new double decker train we were on, but asked different questions like, " Will there be lots of people, is it a busy city?" And when walking around commented that it smelt of apricots (which amazed me that he even knew what one was). He barely reacted at the Jet d'Eau, 400 foot fountain on the lake, yet I saw the sneaky half grin at the clock made of flowers, which I never thought he would like, and he was happy to enjoy watching the second hand for ages.

So I learned a few more lessons this week. I still have no idea how my sons brain works, and what will or won't be an issue. All my planning could never prepare me for his reactions. Its hard when you know you will come home to "How was the trip, did Tom love it?" , and I am thinking - I'm not sure, I think so. I think I would have no fear to taking him on another flight in the future, but would be better prepared for his perspective and sensory overload. I am still proud of him for such a big achievement. Now Alex? There's a whole other challenge....maybe one day, but don't ask me for some time.....

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