We booked our Christmas break last minute. The plane was pretty full so the only seats I could get near each other were two aisle seats in the same row and one in the row in front. My daughter was in front of me and my son across the aisle from me. My son is now 14, his birthday was 5 days before Christmas. He is much taller than me and essentially man sized.
We pre-boarded the plane so I could sort all my sons things and settle him before take off. He wasn’t impressed with the leg room as he gets claustrophobic and he is getting taller all the time at the moment, so legroom is unfortunately decreasing too! He was a little on edge due to being searched at security and also due to being on a plane full of people, but he settled down with his phone (there was no inflight entertainment), ear defenders, neck cushion and taggy blanket – his flight essentials.
About an hour and a half into the flight things started going wrong. My sons phone was on its last legs – his new one was wrapped in Christmas paper in the suitcase, in hindsight I should have given it to him for his birthday. His touch screen was temperamental and it chose right then, on a busy flight, to stop working all together. I could visibly see the stress rising inside him and tried my best to help him calm down but he also was too hot and the sun was shining in his eyes from the window that didn’t have a blind.
Cue in flight meltdown! I’ve dealt with these before. They involve ninja speed and strength, huge amounts of patience and the ability to turn yourself invisible to the outside world. Unfortunately this day, due to being over the isle from my son, my invisibility powers weren’t working so well as I had to crouch in the isle to deal with him.
As I stopped my sons arms from hitting the man next to him and his legs from kicking the man in front, he launched his full water bottle, which landed, with an excessively loud bang, next to my daughter. She impressively whisked it out of sight whilst maintaining her “I’m not with these people” pose.
The bottle launch was highly effective and two flight attendants were with me within seconds. Fortunately they picked up on what was going on from my “he’s autistic” and immediately became my best plane friends for the day. They told me I could take my son to their area to calm down as it was more spacious and round the corner from the people, but I would need to get him to the front of the plane to get there. This was to prove an easy, yet extremely dramatic task.
I unstrapped my sons seatbelt, gently telling him we were moving to the front where it was cooler and the sun wouldn’t be in his eyes. I part lifted him to get him to move and then he ran! He didnt just run, he ran dramatically towards the cock pit of the plane, shouting at the top of his now man voice “I fucking hate you all”, chased by me and two flight attendants! I expertly tackled him at the front and got him into the staff area, the two flight attendants whisked the curtain shut and were very reassuring. I held my son close and he started to calm a little. One flight attendant put the fans on him to cool him down, another made him a drink. They both offered reassurance and joined me in talking to him calmly using a little humour which works well with my son. After 10 minutes he was a lot calmer and able to talk to us. We made a plan to give up on his phone and play minecraft on his nintendo switch instead and to take his nice cool drink back to his seat. We gave him to option to go back to the front anytime except landing if he needed to get away again, as long as he didn’t look like he was hijacking the plane next time, as we had scared our fellow passengers enough that day. The flight attendants read my mind and made me a cup of tea to take back to my seat also.
With nervous, questioning eyes upon us, we calmly walked back to our seats. My son picked up his ear defenders, taggy blanket and nintendo switch and started playing as if nothing had happened. I hid his phone in the depths of my bag, took a deep breath and a sip of tea.
The man next to my son was very nice about the whole situation and his wife held a magazine up to the window to stop the sun. The couple behind me asked if I was ok and told me it was like watching their autistic child who was back in England. They all understood and I’d found my tribe. The experience hit me and a few tears left my eyes as I drank my tea.
The flight attendants checked on my son regularly and we managed the rest of the flight without incident.
A week later, on the way home, I discovered that our fellow passengers had been scared and I was questioned by a couple as to why my son did what he did. I was happy to explain to them about sensory overload, meltdowns and his fight or flight response that he doesn’t yet have any control over. At least from our experience there are a few people out there with a better understanding of autism.
I would like to publicly thank Jet2. I am not sponsored by them in any way but they became my favourite airline that day. You hear so many stories in the press about airlines not treating autistic passengers right, but our experience was made so much easier by the quick thinking, calm and understanding flight crew who knew exactly what to do and how to talk to my son. If I had to choose any airline, I would choose Jet2 because of this experience.
Now we are home and as the traumatic memories turn to humorous stories of the day everyone thought my son was hi-jacking a plane, I am wondering where our next adventure will take us.
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