A couple of weeks ago, we flew to LA to visit friends over the long Presidents’ Day weekend. Other than Ryan asking nonstop questions over a five-hour period (with many of those questions being during the two hours I attempted to sleep as it was late, and I was really tired), it was an easy flight. Ryan was calm and excited for the weekend ahead and did not complain once.
We’ve come a long way. Let’s rewind to when we first started flying with Ryan.
Patience is something Ryan always found difficult – particularly when he was younger. Whether it’s waiting in lines or sitting in traffic, we would brace ourselves for a meltdown when these situations arose. Over the years, it was common to hear Ryan say things like “Mommy, make the line go faster!” or “Mommy, why won’t the cars move! Let’s knock into them so they get out of the way!” in a loud, frustrated voice. To which I tried to remain calm and remind him repeatedly that we can’t control the lines or the traffic.
Because of this, we made the decision to wait before flying with Ryan. When the boys were almost eight, we decided it was finally time to brave air travel and take the boys to Disney over spring break. My parents offered to come with us, figuring four adults could handle whatever happened on that plane. We got seats in an entire row on both sides of the aisle, and the plan was for my parents to sit with Jordan, who had already flown by that point and would likely read a book or play on his DS the whole time, and for Dan and me to sit with Ryan.
While I spent the months leading up to the trip reading The Unofficial Guide to Disney World (a really valuable read – especially the sample schedules designed for different age groups!) and plotting what we would do at each park and in what order, Dan created a social story for Ryan.
Wikipedia definition of social stories: “Social Stories were devised as a tool to help individuals on the autism spectrum better understand the nuances of interpersonal communication so that they could interact in an effective and appropriate manner.” They generally include pictures, since many people with autism like Ryan, are visual learners. In addition to explaining our schedule for the parks and including pictures of some of the rides and the hotel, Dan’s story walked Ryan through the entire airport experience, so he would be prepared for every step of the way. Ryan loved the story and read it over and over before the trip.
I also read articles written by other parents with children on the spectrum, who shared advice on traveling by plane. A few suggested telling the crew your child has autism so they’re not surprised if a meltdown happens.
The day of our trip arrived, and Jordan woke up looking a little under the weather. No fever, though, so we made our way to the airport and got through check-in without a hitch. While waiting to board the plane, Dan tracked down the flight attendants and told them it was Ryan’s first flight, he has autism, and he wanted them to be aware. They were very understanding and let us board early.
Within seconds of the plane taking off, Ryan, who was sitting by the window, fell asleep. Dan and I looked at each other and smiled, took out our books, and read for the entire flight. What a luxury! The flight attendants stopped by our row several times during the flight to make sure Ryan was ok and seemed relieved he was sleeping. (And to make things even sweeter, Ryan also slept during the flight home!)
Meanwhile, across the aisle, Jordan began sneezing as soon as the plane took off. He proceeded to sneeze and blow his nose for the entire two hours and had a cold for the next few days. My poor parents on either side of him could not escape the germs and ended up with nasty colds, as well. I still tease them to this day that if they had taken the more ‘challenging’ child, they would have been healthy during that trip!
Dan and I were so excited with how well Ryan did on the plane that the following summer, we booked a trip to San Diego. We were a bit too confident. (“He’s a natural flyer! We can go anywhere!”) Here’s what we learned — Florida was a fluke. While Ryan also fell asleep at takeoff, 20 minutes later, he was awake and asked, “Are we almost there?” Sigh… we had more than 5 hours to go. His iPad died after an hour and he didn’t want to play with any of the toys he brought. It was a long flight with lots of whining, walking up and down the aisles and threatening no desserts with dinner if he couldn’t keep his voice down.
We’ve now flown as a family to Arizona three times, Florida again, South Carolina, and this past trip to LA. Some flights were easier than others. There was the first trip to AZ where I sat in a row with the boys and Dan had the flight to himself across the aisle. Ryan complained and threw mini tantrums the entire time because he was bored. (And I had a much needed margarita in hand at the pool 90 minutes after landing.) I claimed the lone aisle seat for the flight home, where Ryan slept a good chunk of the time next to Dan. By the second trip to AZ, Ryan was older and entertained himself with movies for most of the flight.
The trip to Florida in 2015 had us landing right after a storm. We were stuck on the runway for a while (cue the whining and mini tantrums) and then our luggage didn’t arrive on the carousel for a long time, as a branch fell on the road between the terminal and baggage claim. This challenged all of us and after a trying few hours sitting in baggage claim, I suggested the boys and I go to the hotel and Dan wait for our bags.
Our 2018 spring break trip home from AZ really put Ryan to the test. He has a fear of babies crying that started when he was four and my baby niece cried nonstop most of our Cape May trip. When Ryan was younger, if we couldn’t get him out of the area where a baby was screaming, he would start crying and it was often difficult to calm him down. On this particular flight, Dan was by the window, Ryan was sitting between us and I was on the aisle. Ryan was directly behind a baby who began to scream right before the plane took off. We were taxiing, and I saw the panic on his face.
Jordan was across the aisle, and quickly, I sprang into action – “Jordan, get up – switch with Ryan. Ryan, go sit across the aisle.” Ryan would still be near the baby but not right behind the noise. People looked at us curiously as we switched seats during the ‘seat belts must be securely fastened’ period. The flight attendant made her way to us and I explained, “He has a fear of crying babies – we’ll be quick.” She already knew about his autism. Dan still tells the crew to this day.
The move was the right one as the baby screamed for the better part of two hours. Ryan was still visibly nervous but did not lose his cool since there was now space between him and the baby. Once she fell asleep, we switched seats again. We were really proud of how he held it together.
The recent LA flight was a bonus in that we were in the first row of a section with lots of space between us and the wall, and we all had TV screens. (the plane was similar to the ones I take to Europe – it was huge) Ryan, who loves Google Earth and numbers, could watch the progression of our flight on his screen – visually, in miles, and in time left to destination. I myself prefer a good movie or a nap but was really glad it kept him interested for the better part of six hours!
What we’ve learned from all our flight experiences is while getting to a destination is not always easy and we have plenty of battle scars (i.e. stories) to share as a result, we love to travel with the boys and are willing to risk difficult plane rides to do that. This summer we are being very brave and planning a trip to Hawaii. There’s an overnight layover on the way there, but just a two-hour layover coming home. I would never have even entertained this trip as an option 3+ years ago, but the tantrums are much fewer these days and Ryan has definitely matured. We’ll see how it goes – I hope I’m not jinxing myself! And if I am, stay tuned for a good future blog post!