When My Son With Autism Melted Down on a Plane, We Got a Surprise Ending
I did not see this coming. I should have, but everything had been going so well. I was not prepared for it. We had just found our seats, and I was already mentally organizing our bags and figuring out what needed to go in the overhead lockers and what I needed to take out for use during the trip. Our seats were the four middle ones, nowhere near a window like on the last flight. His meltdown started. My son was screaming, kicking, hitting and doing everything he could to get away. I dropped everything I was holding and focused on confining him to the small space of our seats. I was struggling to hold on. He may be a skinny kid, but he is strong.
I call them “Bugatti meltdowns.” They go from zero to roaring past you at full speed leaving you wondering what just happened. Then you realize you have to catch and calm them.
My immediate thought was that we were going to be kicked off the plane. My biggest fear in planning this trip was suddenly looming over us.
A few weeks before, I’d seen the news about a girl with autism and her family allegedly being kicked out of a United Airlines flight. Being our first trip on an airplane with our boys, who are also on the autism spectrum, I was really afraid of the same thing happening to us. Especially since we had six flights to take. Six chances to get booted off. At least the family on the news was flying within the U.S. We were a continent away from home and still one more continent and yet another flight from our final destination.
One passenger walking past interrupted my thoughts by yelling even louder than my son, enough that everybody could hear: “You should know better, you are old enough.” The woman sitting behind us laughed and nodded in agreement. The mother bear in me wished I could let go of my son and tear into them for being so ignorant and judgmental. I could feel the anger rising from my belly.
That momentary focus on the two passengers and my own anger gave my son just enough leverage to shove me backwards into the aisle, smacking onto the man shuffling past. He responded by spewing F bombs and other profanities. I’m not sure if they were directed at me; it could have been just how he responds to everything, but each one landed on me like a guided missile. I felt angry and deflated.
I saw the flight attendant talking to my husband, no doubt telling him we would have to get off the plane. We couldn’t possibly expect go through the next 12 hours with our son screaming like that. I accepted our being kicked off as the inevitable ending, but until the police escort arrived, I had to focus on one thing, helping my son calm down. The only way I could do that would be to calm myself down first. I’ve had plenty of practice getting meltdowns under control over the last eight years. I have a method that works well. I simply had to trust it would work on an airplane too.
I took a couple of deep calming breaths and continued to focus on my breathing while I escaped to my paradise — my beautiful beach where I could no longer hear the rude remarks of fellow passengers and not feel the fear of our impending ejection from the airplane. I needed to focus on my son who desperately needed me. He had lost complete control and needed my help to get out of the storm he was swept up in. I went from barely hanging on to him to hugging him tightly and finally to having him sit on my lap while I rocked him. The tears and the sobbing finally ended. The storm of the meltdown had gone on for “hours,” but the end was finally in sight.
By the time the flight attendants started their familiar mime of the onboard safety rules, pointing out the emergency lighting and doors, my son was fast asleep. He slept for almost 10 hours.
I learned from my husband that during the meltdown, comments from many of our fellow passengers suggested they couldn’t wait to see London’s bobbies escort us off the plane.
I also learned the flight attendant I had been so sure had already given the bobbies a call, had actually been working on a plan to move us to window seats once boarding had completed. This meant four strangers had agreed to give up their seats for us so my son would be more comfortable. In addition, when we landed several hours later, a kind grandmother who had been seated close to us stopped to chat. After confirming that my son has special needs, she was particularly concerned about his education. She wanted to know if we had managed to find a good school for him because he needed a school where people would understand him. Only after she heard that he was indeed in a good school did she gather her belongings and leave the plane.
My son’s meltdown in an airplane did not get us kicked off the flight; instead it moved complete strangers to acts of kindness. They did what they could to show us their support and humanity.
This experience was a reminder that I need to trust myself more. I actually sometimes know what I’m doing on the parenting front. And for all the judgmental people out there, there are some who are accepting and supportive. They are the only ones I have to focus on, the rainbows in whatever storm I may find my family caught up in. To all the rainbows out there, thank you!
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