Meltdown In The Sky: A Personal Story of Flying with Autism

Meltdown In The Sky: A Personal Story of Flying with Autism jeff

“An old Romanian joke speaks of a dad sitting on a bench in the park with a unrelentingly screaming baby in his arms whispering, “Ferdinand be calm, Ferdinand be calm.”
A well-meaning bystander who witnesses the situation approaches the dad and asks, “Shouldn’t you be trying something different since it’s obvious that whispering is not calming the child?”.
“Oh, no,’” smiles the distraught father, “You don’t understand…I was whispering to myself’.”

The marvel of traveling with an autistic family member is the fact that life as you know it can change so fast you don’t even realize what hit you.
Of course, after all, hell has broken loose and then calmed down, you get to think back, analyze what went wrong, and hope  you’ve at least discovered some significant clue to help you with the next meltdown (and yes,  there always seems to be the next time.)

The day started as uneventful as you could imagine, having completed my airport checklist in its entirety: an elaborate breakfast, adequate time for airport security, a ritual purchase of a comics magazine and souvenirs, a small airport snack, and pre-boarding, all followed.

I considered this particular flight segment from Tel Aviv to Zurich on Swiss a no-brainer, compared to transatlantic and transpacific trips that we had previously experienced.Silly me, I assumed that between the magazine and the onboard movies offered, everything would run smoothly.

I was dead wrong.

What happened next felt like a surreal horror movie.
Jeff’s movie player broke down, so he started complaining and naturally he switched seats with his brother.But, what do you know? That DVD player malfunctioned too —and apparently so did all four in our row, And now were faced with Jeff unable watch his favorite Shrek movie. He started whining, complaining and screaming in a matter of seconds.

Multiple flight attendants came and went with no apparent ability to fix anything, and then we got a visit from the flight purser herself (with a sour face.)

By then Jeff was noticeably agitated, screaming that he wanted to watch his movie—or else.

Instinctively, I  reached to retrieve Jeff’s calming medication from my purse to offer it to him; however, he was way too wound up by then to listen, and he refused to take it. While holding the pill in my right hand and hugging Jeff with my left, I  calmly reminded the purser of Jeff’s diagnosis and asked her whether she could find him another seat.

She proved to be autism ignorant and proceeded first to order me to “explain” to Jeff that she couldn’t do anything else for him, then lecture me about my poor parenting skills.
Apparently, in her mind, autistic people always stopped to listen to reason, especially during a meltdown.
What could I do but whisper quietly to myself to stay calm?
While my son was busy screaming obscenities, I turned to look around for a second only to notice how everyone was staring at us.
I cracked half a smile and apologized to everyone about the growing commotion while continuing to hug and console my son.

A  kind lady across the aisle proceeded to offer Jeff her laptop—which he refused— while another young woman right behind us started crying too, obviously upset by the whole scene. I  thought I’d offer Jeff the half-melted pill a second time, but he rejected me a second time!

Funny how one’s brain works during a the crisis, as all I could think at that moment was that the crew will decide to avert the flight, and I started wondering whether we were flying over Greece or Turkey.
My mind was racing.
What would Turkish mental hospitals and or prisons look like?
Were the Greek ones better?
Would the airline make you pay the extra expenses for landing the plane?
Would our travel insurance even cover that?
Could one even return to the States if he was put on that ‘no fly’ list?Then, the realization!
Oh no, we would be featured on the five o’clock news, in a terrible way!
I could just see the headline, “American family disrupts flight!”

By now, it was well over an hour of the crisis as  I glanced at the rest of my family.

In the meantime, while all this drama was buy unfolding, my other son was sunk deep into his seat covering his face with his hood, ashamed.
Jeffrey was still crying hysterically until a voice I recognized as my husband snapped me back to reality, saying: “I  think I have a panic attack.”
And just like that, the tide decided to take a turn for the better!

Within a New York minute, I  somehow managed to convince Jeff to swallow the remnants of what used to be his emergency calming pill. Then, I proceeded to hand my husband a much needed Valerian with my other hand and pressed the flight attendant button with my elbow once again.
When she finally arrived, I asked for a glass of cold water for him and a vodka on the rocks for me. As she handed me the drink, I proceeded to spill it all over myself because of my shaky hand.
Clearly this wasn’t a good day.

And then I remembered the joke with “Ferdinand be calm…” and managed to smile.

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