Autism at the Airport

Sunday night, it was snowing lightly and the sky was slightly overcast. My husband and two oldest boys were on their way home from Florida, where they had been attending the Blue Jays spring training in Dunedin. It was their dream trip, something they had always wanted to do. I stayed home with N, my sweet and severely autistic kid. Not that I would not have enjoyed a trip to Florida with them, but rather that this time of year is, for my fledgling accounting services business, busy season. And N usually prefers the routine of home to any sort of unpredictable vacation. So we stayed behind.

As the time approached to pick them up at the airport, I gave N the visual schedule for the rest of the day. A visual schedule is a strip of pictures designed to indicate the sequence of events for a given time period. For Sunday evening there were 6 pictures lined up in a row as follows: Supper, Car Ride, Airport, Dad + Brothers, Home, sleep. I go over it verbally to reinforce his understanding: I tell him “first supper, then car ride, then airport to get daddy, M and A, then home and then bed.”

THere is a pause as N processes this information. I wait to see whether he understands or not. Then N starts to get agitated: “No airport. No airport! No daddy! Stay home! Home! HOME HOME HOME HOME!!!!” The word “home” over and over.

Uh oh! This is not going well. The good news is – we understand each other. The bad news is, I don’t have a choice about what has to be done. we have to go out this evening, we have to go to the airport. They are in flight at this point, and I cannot get in touch with them to suggest they take the airport limo or bus. I gotta figure out how to get N to cooperate. Without a meltdown. N is almost the same size as I, so picking him up and strapping him into the car is not an option.

From his reaction I discern that N wants supper, and is not adverse to the car ride, although he clearly wants “home”. I think I can get him into the car. After supper, I tell him: “time for car ride…” N is happy to put on his jacket and boots, and together we climb into the car and we set out on the dark snow-dusted roads toward Lester B. Pearson airport. I check the mirror and see N is mesmerized by the ghosts of light and shadow that drift across the vinyl and upholstery of the car interior. He gazes out the window with wonder at the height of the lights on the highways, at the multiple lanes of cars traveling in so many directions as we near the airport. “Hands Down” he tells me as I put my hands at the 10-and-2 position on the steering wheel, for I am not familiar with the airport and cannot keep my hands on the bottom of the wheel out of his view, where they normally hide, when I feel stress. N is always aware of the positions of people’s hands and feet, and he becomes upset when they are not in the correct place which is “down”. “Almost time for hands down” I reply.

I don’t tell him where we are going or why. Sometimes when it comes to information, less is more! I hope that will help him to be cooperative and come in the airport with me. Cannot leave him in the car. Cannot drag him in. Presently we arrive at Terminal 1 Arrivals and I soon find the parking garage entrance and park the car. I here a soft whimper in the back seat that reads: “WTF”? I respond to the whimper with a confident reply: “OK N, time to get out of the car”

It works. We head into the unnamed building (for him) and travel until I find the international gate for Air Canada. We stand there, N and I, waiting without explanation, and N is fine. N looks around with wonder: the ceilings are impossibly high, and there are unexpected things hanging from it, not fans or lights, but sculptures of shapes and swirls. He stares at them, puzzled. “What are they there for, what is their purpose?” I imagine him saying if he could. “Isn’t this fun?” I ask N. “HOME?” he replies. “First wait, then home…” is my response. “First wait, then home!” he replies. We stand, time passes, N dances back and forth in an exaggerated swaying movement and utters a non-stop stream of singsong nonsense to comfort himself. “First wait then home” he repeats over and over. And each time he says it I repeat it back. Nobody is paying much attention to him, they are all preoccupied. Planes land, people greet each other with love and joy, their anticipation fulfilled. N is simply in the moment, simply being there, without knowing why, but thankfully, without anticipation, or anxiety. “Isnt this fun?” I ask. “Home” N replies. “First wait then home!”

The crowd at the international gate thins. Time is passing, the plane is late and N is getting tired. He takes my hand and leads me to the glass wall that acts as a partition between the passengers and the greeters. I follow him. Once we are at the glass wall, he says to me “turn” and guides me with his hands to position me where he wants me. So together the two of us press our backs against the panel of glass through which we could see the arrival of passengers. Together we look to the slanting glass wall of the building to beyond the terminal, outside into the darkness. We see the night sky, but the glass reflects the coming and going of people within. We watch in the glass two little boys chase each other, flight crews pulling small handbags, an overfilled baggage cart tipping precariously and a woman struggling to steady it while an oblivious man pushes on. A voice echoes from the loudspeaker requesting assistance from anyone in the building who speaks Japanese. Beside me, the rhythmic hiss of an ipod playing too loudly. I hear the swoosh of the door behind us and the tapping of many footsteps and I turn around to see if they are there. “No! NO! NO! NO!” and N is moving me back to face the outside window.

Finally I feel a tap on the head, and look up to see my boys and husband behind us. “It was easy to find you mom because you and N are the only people looking the wrong way” exclaimed M. Autism at the airport turned out well! 37 `reflections of the life inside and out, the passengers coming and going and their luggage, and their lives and their normal-ness. And the smallness of the world, and how our world is even smaller, being boiled down to a strip of pictures and first-then verbal reminders. I text my husband to look for us, because we will not see them in the thin crowd that looks the other way. It is not long before I feel a tap on my head. I look up and see the exhilaration in the tanned faces of my two older boys and husband. They have lived a dream come true. Yet at the same time they return, they look for us when we cannot see them, all of us! They are happy to come home to autism and me. And we are so glad to have them back, HOME! HOME home HOME home HOMe outside and inside, dark and light, without or without understanding.


About lifewithautistickid

I am a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA), with an MBA and BA. I have been fortunate to have had an extraordinary life with an autistic kid. I have learned so much from him about people and life in general. I want to make a difference by sharing my extraordinary experiences. Raising a son with severe autism and developmental disability has made me realize how we who are "normal" do not understand "disability". Instead of trying to "fix" people like my son by burying them in the community, I would like to see a society that respects and honors them for who they are. The potential is endless, in a world that can celebrate with sincerity, the dignity of the individual. Love and blessings to people of all "disability" . That includes you and me!
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