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To the 'Cool Guy' on the Plane Who Realized My Son Has Autism

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We arrive at Burlington Airport.

At this point in my son’s life, “The Cat in the Hat” is everything to him. He has the book, the movie, the t-shirt. He runs to the gift store and demands I purchase him a Cat in the Hat Pop Up book for $47.95. I comply because I believe this may be the one thing that will get us through the TSA Security Check, onto the plane, and to Chicago without a meltdown, and I know the purchase is in vain.

We get onto the plane, and I feel like every head turns to us at that moment, looking at us with a feigned politeness. I know what they are thinking, “Oh great, it’s a family, please, don’t sit in the aisle next to me.” In my head I can even hear the stewardess saying, “You can feel free to store your… child, in the overhead compartment, or the space beneath the seat in front of you.”

We get to our seats, and we are two rows behind the engine. If we hit turbulence, it will be a bad experience. However, we are a family, and we are flying on a budget. My son sits by the window, my wife, in the center and I take the seat in the aisle. I see this “cool guy” get onto the plane, a man about my age. He is wearing a concert t-shirt, ripped up jeans, he’s listening to punk rock from the 1970s on his iPhone. This guy represents who I was as a traveler before I had a child. He takes the aisle seat directly across from me. I want to say to him, “Look, Cool Guy, you might think you are going to relax and enjoy this flight, but you are part of my family for the next 1400 miles, so strap in, it’s going to get bumpy!”

We take off. Planes are not designed with children in mind. There is no ball pit, no playground and an iPad can be entertaining for just so long. To keep my child occupied, my wife and I take turns walking him from the pilot’s cabin to the tail. We hit turbulence over Buffalo and need to take our seats. The plane is shaking; my son’s ears begin hurting from the drop in cabin pressure, and he has a meltdown. This is a child who has difficulty with crowded social situations and excessive stimulation. My wife and I can do nothing but hold him and live through this moment. I look over at Cool Guy, and he is staring at me, trying to pour a rum and Coke. I want to say, “Look, Cool Guy, I am sorry if we are ruining your time on the bar in United Flight 106, but we have a crisis here, and if anyone on this plane needs to drink, it’s me!”

My son falls asleep out of exhaustion. And that wave of exhaustion flows over my family. I just sit there, listening to the hum of the engine and staring blankly at the Sky Mall magazine shoved into the sleeve of the seat in front of me, hoping we will start our descent into Chicago soon.

Then, I feel something hit my shoulder.

It’s Cool Guy. He hands me two trial-sized Bacardi Silvers and a Diet Coke and says, “You need this more than I do.” I pour the rum into the Coke and that sweet taste of Puerto Rican Rum and bitter aspartame is the most soothing drink I have ever had.

We started talking. He tells me he grew up in Vermont and lives in Los Angeles. He works in “the business.” “You’re brave to take a kid on a plane,” he says. “I have three kids, and I won’t drive them from Long Beach to Malibu.”

“Does your son have autism?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say and I tell him about some of the difficulties, and some of the triumphs.

He doesn’t say, “That must be hard” or “You’re a great dad.” He just listens to me. Allowing me to feel human for just a few minutes. He turns what was the most horrible flight of my life into the most memorable flight of my life.

We land in Chicago. Whenever I have a heartfelt conversation with someone I am never going to see again I want to say something like, “May the Universe treat you well,” but I never end up saying anything that poetic and goofy. Instead, I said “Hey, if you’re ever in Vermont again…” He stops me, smiles and says, “I’ll stay in a hotel.”

Then, my family and I entered Chicago O’Hare International Airport. My son promptly finds a bookstore and demands I buy him a second copy of the same Cat in the Hat Pop Up book I’d bought him two hours earlier in Vermont.

Thank you, Cool Guy, may the Universe treat you well.

Image via Thinkstock.

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When a Stranger Questioned Why I'd Have More Children When My First Is Autistic

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I remember the day I met you four years ago. We were brought together in the name of volunteerism. As we sat in the conference room awaiting our assignment, small talk ensued. The usual niceties were exchanged. The typical “what do you do?” and “how do you know so-in- so?” followed. Conversations soon turned more personal.

You turned to me and asked, “Are you married? Do you have children?”

“Yes, I’m married, and I have three children,” I replied.

“What are their ages?” you asked.

I took a deep breath. This is where this conversation always gets uncomfortable for me. Strangers ask questions that dig a little too deep sometimes. I told you my son was 15 and my daughters were 7 and 5. There are always questions about the gap in age between my son and his sisters. “Why’d you wait so long to have more children? Why would you want such a large gap between them? Didn’t you feel like you were starting over?”

You asked these questions, and I simply replied, “My son is autistic. He was 9 when his first sister was born. That was the time we chose to add another child to our family.”

Your response astonishes me to this day. I expected silence. I expected a change of subject. What I did not expect was this:

“Wait! Let me get this straight. You had an autistic child. You proved you could create a damaged child, then you intentionally had additional children? Why would you tempt fate like that? Has the level of your selfishness ever occurred to you?”

My heart raced. My face burned. Rage poured through me. The chatter around the room stopped, and that silence was deafening as I struggled to process what was just said to me. I somehow found a way to suppress my anger and said:

“Never have I thought of surrounding my oldest child with a sibling’s love as a selfish act. My daughters love their brother. He will always be surrounded by people who love him unconditionally… just as he is. As you have just proven to me, the world can be a harsh, cruel place. Love doesn’t exist in every corner, but it always will exist in every corner of his world because of the love of his family.”

It has been four years since that day, and I still think of you from time to time. My son graduated from high school this year. He was the first in his graduating class to walk across the stage, and there in the stands were his sisters. He has three sisters now. They were all cheering him on that night. The youngest yelled, “That’s my bubba!” when she saw him in his cap and gown. The older girls are approaching their tween years, and they still tell everyone they have the coolest brother ever.

Am I selfish? Nineteen years ago I received love in a tiny package. As time went by, I couldn’t wait to see that love multiply. Today I’m a proud mother of four. Our house bursts with love, and we have plenty to share. The love my children have life spills into our community and shines light where there is darkness. Perhaps one day, it’ll touch your dark corner as well. Today I choose to forgive you for your harsh words and your ignorance. May you be touched by a love like ours one day.

Image via Thinkstock.

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When a Group of People Asked My Son on the Autism Spectrum to Stay

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Autism moms I am familiar with, as well as myself, are ready to spring into action at any time. We come prepared with food, toys and other supplies as needed. When planning an outing to a new location, I will usually visit the place or event first so I have an idea of what to expect and know exactly where to go. As an autism mom, we are also used to exiting an event sooner than we planned due to escalating behaviors.

This was very much the case as we started out on a cool Sunday afternoon with our family. My 5-year-old son who is on the spectrum has been showing an interest in music. With this interest and others that have surfaced, we have been seeking out non-obtrusive opportunities for him to experience the respective subject.

On this particular afternoon, we were on our way to our first family-friendly drum circle a friend had told me about. We were excited to go and didn’t want to wait an extra month to complete a preliminary research visit. My husband and I agreed we would see what happens and be open to the option of leaving earlier than planned if needed.

As we arrived at the drum circle, a large group had informally assembled. As we entered the area, we went through the process of burning sage (smudging). My son found this fascinating since he always enjoys watching smoke. The group volunteers happily let him explore. In fact, he even played with a drum on the table, which isn’t something he would normally do. The larger group assembled around the bonfire, and we let our son work his way over to the group on his own time. Once closer, he spotted another fascination — fire.

After spotting the fire, he then made it his mission to get inside the circle to be closer to it. Unsure of the drum circle protocol, we did our best to keep him out of the circle. This led to several protests from my son, and after a short time, we decided to head home as the behaviors escalated.

As we were picking up our things, a lady with red hair came over. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she let us know that it was completely fine to let him go in the middle of the circle. She said, of course, they wanted him to be safe around the fire, but we knew from experience he wouldn’t touch it. This lady among several others asked us to stay.

He entered the large circle undaunted (which was unusual for him) and went straight up to the fire. The woman leading the night was in the center talking. Feeling a bit out of place for the moment, her words floated over me until one sunk in — beautiful. She called my boy, a boy she had never formally met, beautiful.

We stood there for some time. Watching the drummers. Watching the dancers. Watching my son dance, unfiltered, free in front of a crowd of over 100 people. He was in the presence of a group that said stay. He was in the presence of a group that let him be who he was. He was in the presence of a group of people who didn’t know him, but took the time to show love.

I sat on the sidelines speechless and in tears. It’s not hard to notice the stares in the store when my son has his behaviors. For some time, it has been my wish to have my son around people that fully accepted him. Just to see how it would feel.

Wanting to stick to our bedtime for the kids, we had to end the night early. As we left, people came up to us thanking us for bringing our son. This, too, was a first for me. There were times we had faced challenges at the store or the mall, and I wanted someone to tell me it was OK. On this night, people actually did come forward.

That night my son received 100 percent heartfelt acceptance. For the first time in my experience, people didn’t simply claim acceptance, they stood up and took action. For the first time, the stares weren’t due to behavior, but were given with admiration and love. One hundred plus members of this drum circle family have no idea that on a cool evening they were participants of a small miracle.

Follow this journey on Spectrum Lane.

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What I Want You to Know About My Life on the Autism Spectrum

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My name is Alex, and I have autism.

They say my mind is extraordinary, that’s why I stand out. I never said a word until I was 12.

I’m learning how to live in a world where I don’t belong, and I say that because people like me aren’t usually accepted. When I finally did talk, everything else looked fine from the outside. So my biggest problem now is that people forget I’m on the spectrum, so they say and do things I either don’t understand or get stuck on because I can’t figure out what they mean.

I still can’t always look at people when they’re talking to me, but I’ve worked hard to get where I am with eye contact. I still have meltdowns, and I still shut people out, but it doesn’t happen as often as it once did.

I learn in black and white, that’s all I know. I don’t know body language, and I can’t read facial expressions. I also have sensory processing disorder. Most materials that aren’t cotton feel like knives or fire on my skin. I don’t like to pet things, and I don’t like fur.

On a good day, most of the time you wouldn’t be able to tell I am autistic, unless you knew what to look for.

alex with a bunny

I know what I want, I just don’t always know how to say it. I don’t always use my words. There are days where I don’t talk at all, and those are the days where I shut people out.

I graduated high school this year, but I barely made it out alive. I have no confidence or self-esteem. High school never taught me how to love myself or how to fit in.

I’m obsessed with cars. If I know you, I know what you drive. It only takes seeing someone get out of their car one time to know what they drive, and I will remember it… forever. I know most people’s license plate numbers without even trying to. I have to be careful not to look because otherwise I would know every plate on the road.

I want people to know that just because someone may look completely fine, doesn’t mean they are.

So be kind, always.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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In the Mind of a Man on the Autism Spectrum

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Here is what my autism looks like…

Selfishness, self-centeredness, self-involvement.

I am an ice king, I move through the world like a young Vulcan moves through a human city, stoic, solid and apparently untouched.

I am the arrogant one, the annoying one, the one most likely to hijack a thread or a conversation and to loop whatever you’re talking about back to me.

I am the reclusive, the introverted, the loner.

I am the third seat bassoonist in the symphony of society, always unsure of the rhythm, eternally out of key. I fade in and out with varying levels of skill, I play my three notes and then retreat to a safe distance, watching, waiting to see if I am going to be accepted or if I have brought the music to a crashing halt and a scolding is imminent.

My lack of rhythm is ironic in that I tick to my own beat, tic-ing in various ways, some so subtle as not to be noted, others so loud that Oppenheimer would wince at my explosions.

I am both creator and destroyer of worlds.

Some of us swim in oceans of art, in seas of words, in colors more vibrant than a Van Gogh hallucination; others wrap ourselves in ourselves. I take my butterflies inside to play.

They say I feel nothing. Frequently I feel too much. I love too hard, I take a conversation into fragments, diagramming and re-diagramming and seeking that one tiny flaw and beating myself with it, long and hard, until days, weeks, months, years later I take out the much battered sentences and show them to the person I spoke the words to and they wonder what I am thinking of. Them. I am thinking of them. And they, well, they think about me, so science says, for about 17 seconds on average.

Or it, I am thinking about it. The “Black Beauty” steam trains of India and the narrow gauge rails that crisscross the country starting in the far north near Nepal, moving south to the sea. I think about the signals and the whistle stops, and the whistle itself, smooth barrel of high pressure sound trapped within it’s tempered tolerances, smooth walls, quiet until the conductor pulls the chain and breaks the pipe, cracks it open. Do you not know about trains? Let me tell you about trains. Steam trains, electric trains, maglev trains, let me tell you again, and again, and eternally…

I do not live in barren white expanses, I decorate the walls of my mind, but I rarely, oh so very rarely, let you in.

And when I do – feel blessed.

This is what my autism is.

Sensorum in flood tides. Information in Force 12 winds.

I hear your words. Oh, yes, I hear them. And the squeak of your chair, and the rustle of your shirt, and the man chewing at table two, and the woman farting at table 10, and the little boy who wants to go home “now please?” and the glass-packed muffler on the street rod outside, and, oh, wait, is that a train?

There is so much data, so much to fill each second. So much that it hurts. It claws at me. It reaves my inner walls and makes me look for psychological plywood to batten down my hatches.

And sometimes it is too much.

You say to me, “My words are more important than your trains. My words are more important than your words. Be nice. Don’t hit. Obey the rules. Smile. Laugh at my jokes. Remember this, remember that. This is important!”

And you drown me in your words.

And so I melt down.

On the best of days I take myself home and I rest. I read quietly or think about the trains in the Punjab.

I wonder why your words are so important, I wonder why the fork goes on the right. I wonder why you want to shake my hands, see my eyes. These things are arbitrary things. Not like Watt’s steam engine, not like pipes, and condensers, and metal stresses. Trains are real. Trains are concrete.

Manners are just more rules, and what are rules, words and what are words, sounds.

Social conventions. Mass hallucinations. Subject to change and flux and, God help me, fashion. Different from country to country, heck, from town to town. All strains on some theme for social groupings.

Not for me.

But I want to please you. I want to fit in. I want to learn. I want to love and to be loved… and so I study. I think. I memorize. I adapt. (Yes, we can do that. ) I take lessons. I do therapy.

I train.

But it is hard.

I recover slowly. I run out of spoons. Be patient with me.

After all I am being patient with you.

Image via Thinkstock.

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4 Ways I Cope With Depression as a Person on the Autism Spectrum

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I have a confession. My life is a paradox. On one hand, public speaking is my profession. I enjoy my job. I feel I have both a calling and a gift to do it. Then there is the side of me that doesn’t like to talk at all. I’m terrified of meeting new people, socializing in large crowds and carrying on small talk. I’m often lost on what to say and when to say it. I’m completely uncomfortable in strange places with strange people. Sometimes, I won’t even leave my home.

I live with this daily, and I’ve learned to accept these two different sides of my personality even when others can’t seem to understand it.

Silence and solitude are at times my greatest assets. It’s not uncommon for me to go hours or sometimes a complete day without speaking. Learning to be comfortable with silence has helped me to become a focused thinker in order to process the world around me in a safe space. Silence is how I handle my sensory processing issues. Yes, there are times that I don’t talk a lot, but I need my moments of solitude in order to stay strong.

Then there are those seasons when silence and solitude are my biggest liabilities. Being comfortable with silence can be just as much a curse as it can be a gift. There are moments when my inclination to stay quiet and alone become the source of my struggles instead of the source of my strength. Sometimes my silence leaves so many stories left untold and unresolved.

One of the most devastating consequences of living with this constant contradiction is the role of depression. Silence ceases to be an asset when I’m unaware or unable to speak out about the secrets of my silent struggle. My story is a story that includes an ongoing struggle with periods of depression.

As a teenager and college student, my desperation to be included, mixed with my natural desire to remain in solitude, created routine periods of depression that led to years of self-medicating through drugs and alcohol. 

As a recently diagnosed adult, I’ve learned the language to describe my struggle, however, there are thousands, if not millions, of teenagers and young adults who are unable to articulate these feelings of despair. This post is for them and the people who love them, so here are just a few tips that I have found helpful in managing my moments of depression:

1. Understand the “norm.”

Every person on the spectrum is different, so reducing their behavior to a standard set of practices is usually not helpful. Instead, understand what normal behavior looks like for them. People on the spectrum also have personalities and likes and dislikes just like everyone else. Try to focus on when they began to show changes in their personalities and moods.

2. Recognize the ripples.

When I’m in a season of depression, the most accurate image I can use to describe it is quicksand. Quicksand can be dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be deadly. One of the primary ways to avoid it all together is to look for ripples in the ground as you walk. Ripples indicate that the ground ahead is unstable.

When managing my life on the spectrum, I’ve learned to do my best to watch out for unstable ground. Excessive changes in routine and/or social interaction can be emotionally, mentally and spiritually draining for me. It also increases the chances of me going into a depressive state. I’m not always good at recognizing when I’m in danger of stepping into the quicksand, so I try to have trusted friends and family who can help me recognize the ripples before I start sinking.

3. Pursue professional help.

When I was much younger I didn’t realize the weight of depression. I didn’t know I was autistic and also didn’t grow up in a culture that talked much about mental health. The result was I turned to drugs and alcohol as teen and young adult in order to self medicate.

I now have an extremely high view and value for seeking professional help. I see my therapist (who also diagnosed me with Asperger’s syndrome) at least once a month since my diagnosis almost two years ago. At this time, my depression doesn’t require medication, however, there are situations that may require the use of medication, and I recommend seeing a professional who can help you make those decisions for yourself or your loved one.

4. Respect the need for rest.

People on the spectrum don’t experience meltdowns or shutdowns because they are underwhelmed. Those moments, along with periods of depression, are usually the result of being overwhelmed. I have recently observed that my extraordinary ability to focus on tasks can, at times, cause me to go long periods without resting.

When I speak of rest, I am speaking about more than just sleep, which is needed. I’m talking about the rest of the mind and spirit. For me, rest is spiritual, so my faith plays a large role in how I manage my moments of depression. I encourage you or the person you love to find an activity that helps the soul to rest.

Depression on the spectrum can feel like walking in quicksand. The harder you try to get
out of it by yourself, the worse it feels, but I’ve learned that learning to speak up is the best way to get help when you need it the most.

My hope is you will learn there are times when it’s OK to speak up and allow others to help pull you out.

You are not alone. 

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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