How to get an autistic child onto a plane and out again.

When sister 3 sent the email suggesting Marianne and I do our Weekend Charter on flying - Yes we had to ask her again, but next week we're asking you! - I was actually drawing a picture of a plane for my son. He likes pictures of planes and he did the one in the banner. But that's not why I was drawing one. You see we're flying to Izmir in the summer and I have to prepare him. And because he thinks in pictures, any preparation has to take the form of picture stories - social stories, they're called. I draw little cartoons of exactly what is going to happen, highlighting what he shouldn't do by drawing big red crossed circles on the pictures - the universal no. When he sees these cartoon strips, he understands what's going to happen and stops worrying about it so much. This is something I wish I'd known about this time last year.

Last summer we were going to fly with the children for the first time in three years. Since the last time, we'd found out that our son was autistic, and we'd realised exactly how hard it was to make him do what he didn't want to do. And he'd had a particularly difficult year with sensory issues - engine noise bothered him. He could hear a plane minutes before we could, and the slightest buzzing sound of supermarket refrigerators had him covering up his ears in pain. Add to the equation the fact that when we informed him we would fly to England and France he went into a terrible fright and screamed that he wouldn't go in a plane. This is when I realised we might have a difficult time ahead.

So I did what I do whenever I 'm in trouble: I googled. I put in 'Autism, children, planes' and the very first thing I came up with was the story of how a mother and her daughter had been turned out of a plane. I'd heard that story before, the little girl was having a major tantrum and the mother couldn't calm her down. What I hadn't known before was that the little girl was autistic, and that the mother really needed the airline staff to back away and give her space so she could calm her little girl down. The story from that point of view took on a wholly different aspect, a very frightening one.

What if Max has a tantrum and they won't let him on the plane? What if he just won't go? At the last minute I drew a little story book for him, going through all the steps of travelling by plane - but he refused even to look at it. I promised bribes, lollipops AND sweets. He said no way.

On the actual day, we were being picked up at 4am, so we decided not to wake him, just to carry him out of the door into the car in his pyjamas. He opened his eyes as we were going through the door, grabbed the door frame, turned to me and said 'I'm going to stay home with you'. Thankfully he wasn't awake enough to put up a full resistance and we got him into the car. From then on he was a nervous wreck - not talking, hardly moving. Not having a temper tantrum though. Once it came to boarding he just couldn't. He grabbed on to his father and pulled him out of the queue. I'm not going in, he said. So my husband put him up on his shoulders, and together they walked in to the airplane. The staff, the passengers - no one raised an eyelid. He sat next to me and covered his eyes. The noise of the engine bothered him, and he was clearly afraid of the take off, but he said nothing.

Once we were up and going, he perked up - asked for his sweets and lolly, and then waited expectantly for the hostess to bring him his meal. He ate it with relish, drew some pictures, looked at the sky, and generally had a great time. Going into the next plane we had exactly the same scenario - cold feet, discomfort, and  then fun, fun, fun. As soon as we got to England, he demanded we take the plane back. And then everyday. I ended up having to buy him some paper planes to play with, cutting out paper people and cases to act out the whole travel scenario. Going back home, we had exactly the same problems : he wouldn't get in, his father had to carry him, then he was fine. But until we were actually in the plane we didn't know we'd be able to get home.

The worst thing was that because of this, we never really got to plan out the other troublesome aspects of our stay. We had to travel around England a lot - too much - and he found that hard. We stayed in different places and he never got to get used to them enough to feel comfortable. There were a lot of dogs around, of course, which didn't help. And no matter how nice and helpful everyone was, he had a hard time seeing so many people he wasn't used to, and so few he was familiar with. He coped with this by having daily tantrums that were loud and long, and involved plenty of head banging - something we'd thought he'd given up more than a year ago. These episodes often made us wish we hadn't come at all.

So next month we're taking a plane again - it's something he needs to get used to - but we're not going abroad, just to the beach with Marianne and family. I drew this on a couple of pictures for him and he seems happy with the idea. In fact, he informed me he's going tomorrow.

The first one gives the general sequence - we take the plane, then a taxi to the hotel and we go to the beach. The second one makes it clear that we're not going to England - just the beach! The weird shaped thing is England.

Next thing to deal with, is the jealousy issues he has with his cousins - I'll be drawing pictures so he can enjoy spending time on the beach with them!


Gappy said...

I don't really know anything about autism so that post was really informative for me. What a fantastic and creative way to help your son deal with up and coming stuff. So glad the plane journeys were o.k. for you all.

Sandrine said...

Thanks Gappy. It was such a revelation to discover that he actually could understand complex sequences of events if I drew them for him! Now if I want to persuade him to do something, I just leave a picture of it lying around for him to peruse before we talk. So far so good!

Hannah said...

Cor I didn't realise the use of pictures could help that much. Which is funny, because I drew that picture of Angleterre for Charlotte & Max, which is kinda like these.

Does he like Bandes Dessinees?

Sandrine said...

Hannah, he loves that picture. We didn't realise either until very recently the extent to which he thought in pictures. But he needs quite simple stuff, with unequivocal meanings. So far anyway. The trouble with bds is that they're never that straightforward...which is the whole point of them! Max has a great sense of humour, but it doesn't work quite like neurotypicals'.

Varda said...

Hi, I found you via The Bloggess (isn't she fab) and really enjoyed reading your posts. I, too have a kid with Autism. I assume, since you've got a visual thinker, that you've read Temple Grandin's book "Thinking in Pictures". I've had the pleasure to hear her speak and meet her twice and she's truly awesome & inspiring. Come visit me at my blog, The Squashed Bologna: a slice of life in the sandwich generation.

Sandrine said...

Hi Varda! Thanks for joining us. I've been to your blog too and love it. Yes, I've got the book and it must have been amazing meeting her. I'm thinking if my son turns out like her we're sorted! But I guess even among autistic people there are some excepttional ones. So I'll be happy for him just to be him! (In fact I'm sure how I'd feel about him growing up to be a female animal scientist...) I seem to be getting a lot of visitors from the Bloggess, I hope she doesn't come after me!

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