I was dreading it like a root canal. Two 3 plus hour flights, a three-hour time zone difference, staying in an unfamiliar location, eating unfamiliar food, being around unfamiliar people: all these are things that could potentially disrupt the crucial routine of my nearly four-year-old son with autism and ADHD thrives on.
Disruptions in his routine can have severe side effects such as meltdowns, aggressive behavior, as well as sleeping and eating issues. Also, I am hypersensitive to him disturbing other people, such as on airplanes. The second he kicks the seat in front of him or gets loud; I feel my cheeks burning, my heart racing, and my anxiety skyrockets. I had a thousand concerns about our upcoming family trip. What if we get kicked off the airplane? What if he has a hard time adjusting to the new time zone? What if he doesn’t play well with his cousins? What if our family thinks we are bad parents? What if, what if, what if.
As it turns out, a lot of what I feared did happen. The two 3 hour flights on the way to California from Florida to meet up with my husband’s family were pretty rough. Fortunately, the lady in front of my son was very understanding. I tapped her on the shoulder before take-off and told her my son had autism and ADHD and may kick her seat but that I’d do everything in my power to stop it. She was a very kind pediatric nurse and said it’s no big deal. My son was in his car seat, so his legs were at the perfect angle to kick her seat, and he did, pretty much the entire flight. Despite my attempt at distractions, despite my attempt at holding his feet, he kicked away. On the second leg, we opted to check the car seat, and that helped a lot! He didn’t kick the seat in front of him nearly as much, but he did find other ways to get people’s attention. He was watching How to Train Your Dragon on the iPad, and every time the dragon roared, my son roared louder. It was so embarrassing! But, no one said a word.
Once we got to our resort, he was exhausted. Because of course, he didn’t nap one millisecond on the plane. He immediately laid down and passed out on the floor. I transitioned him to his pack and play, and my husband and I started unpacking. It was then I realized that one of his daily medications had burst and leaked out completely AND I forgot one of his daily supplements. The next day I’d have to deal with that aggravation. I told my husband I am never doing this again. It wasn’t fair to my son, it wasn’t fair to me, it wasn’t fair to the passengers on the plane. I was done. But then, wonderful things started happening.
In the morning, my son woke up super happy. He had a blast at the resort pool and rec room. Once our family arrived at the resort, the next day, things got even better. He was so excited to see his older cousins, grandparents, and aunt and uncle, and they were excited to see him. My sister-in-law had asked me before the trip what to tell her children about their cousin’s autism. I so appreciated that. I could tell the boys understood their cousin had some differences, but it didn’t deter them from wanting to engage with him in the least. They’d all play together, and when my son drifted off into his own world, they just watched with such a keen interest. His play was intriguing to them. They gave him his space when he needed it and engaged with him when he allowed it.
All of the adults made me feel at ease. Even when my son did something atypical, they offered to help. They understood. They were warm and caring. The entire week wasn’t easy. There were meltdowns. There were aggressions. There were some challenges for sure, but it was not really any different than when we are at home. The only difference is this time, we were surrounded by our loving family. They were getting a chance to catch an authentic glimpse at our son’s challenges as well as the things that make him unique.
When it was time to leave, I was pretty emotional. I had worked up in my head how difficult this trip could be, and it was the exact opposite. I think for my nephews, they got a first-hand experience at being around a child with autism. I think they’ll be great in dealing with peers with differences. My in-laws got to experience the highs and the lows of our autism parenting journey, and it was met with no judgment, just acceptance, and compassion. My son got to spend time with family. People who unconditionally love him for exactly who he is.
The 2 flights home went remarkably well! He slept for nearly the entire first leg, and the second he quietly watched a movie. That was great because it really helped to end the week on a high note. He transitioned back to Eastern time in one night and went back to ABA therapy happily the very next day.
I learned a lot during this trip. For one, I am guilty of creating a lot of thought distortions in my mind that simply aren’t true. My son has autism. Me worrying about what COULD go wrong isn’t going to change what could go wrong. Me worrying about the fear of judgment isn’t going to create judgment. The only thing I CAN do is plan and prepare, and I did that. My overwhelming desire to protect him and to protect myself has been denying us both the potential for wonderful experiences.
I am so glad we went on this trip. I am not saying I am ready to jump back on a plane, but my son shouldn’t be kept from family and adventure because of my irrational fears. I know a lot of parents who have special needs children are guilty of the same type of isolation I often create. Yes, it’s easier to keep my son home in his own environment that I can control, but that’s not healthy for anyone. We all need a variety of exposure and experiences to thrive.
I urge you, despite the hurdles that parenting a child with autism involves, get out of your comfort zone. Take your kids on adventures. Make memories. Yes, it will come with challenges. But it’s still worth it!
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. – Neale Donald Walsh