We knew from the start that we were going to be pushing it this weekend. We were doing a fly-in/fly-out for a family wedding, which meant a full day of air travel on Friday (two planes and a lengthy layover in between)followed by a late night big-crowd dinner, then a late-night wedding on Saturday and an early morning flight out on Sunday. We had the essentials at the ready: iPod loaded with Bud-friendly music, portable DVD player and all the favorite discs, toys, books, snacks. Bud was amazing all weekend long. With the exception of a few minor cranky moments (his and ours), he was a trooper and I think he even had a good time. So we were breathing a sigh of relief when, after only about six hours of sleep we were at the airport with plenty of time to spare for the first leg of our flight this morning.
We shouldn't have exhaled quite so soon. The second leg of our flight was delayed, though not by a lot, so we were still in good spirits when we boarded and found our seats in the very last row of the plane. The seat in front of us was filled by an off-duty pilot being flown to his next assignment. A few minutes later, a flight attendant arrived to tell him there was a space in first class and he vacated that row, leaving room for another family in the back to redistribute themselves.
Before I go any further, I should point out two important pieces of information about Bud: 1) Lately he has been reacting very poorly to other children who he believes are muscling in on his territory. If we are at the playground, or the train table at the toy store or a particular tidal pool at the beach and another child approaches, Bud loses it: "No! That's mine! You go away, boy!" I have learned that this is not a time for rationalizing or negotiation. This is a time to exit, and we do so quickly. 2) Bud rarely has a full-out meltdown. When he does, it is invariably because he is overtired and there is always a Point of No Return at which the meltdown becomes hysteria and is only resolved when he is so exhausted he passes out.
Back to my story... though I know you can see where this is going.
The new seat arrangement looked like this:
Back row was Bud at the window, me in the middle, my husband on the aisle.
In the row in front of us was boy (about 10) at window, boy (about 9) in middle, off-duty flight attendant trying to nap on aisle. Across the aisle from them was empty seat on aisle, boys' Mom in middle completely focused on boy (about 4) at window. In other words, the two boys in front of us were completely unsupervised.
I believe it started with the window, though I didn't really pick up on what was going on until later. Bud was opening and closing the slider on the windows next to him, including the window just to the front of him, and just behind the boy in front of him. The boy changed the positon of the shade. Bud protested and put it back. It happened again.
At this point, Middle Boy got interested in a "what's up with the kid behind us" sort of way, and started peering through the crack in the seats at Bud. This caused Bud distress and he again began to protest. I was still not clueing in on what was going on. I knew Bud was distressed, but I couldn't identify the source of the problem. I was also distracted because they kept making announcements telling us we would be delayed "just a few minutes more," so I don't know if Middle Boy was doing anything other than peering. I do know, however, that distress turned rapidly into freak-out.
I finally clued in and switched seats with Bud so that if Middle Boy peered through, he'd only see me. Unfortunately, Bud had passed the Point of No Return. He started shrieking "No! Stop it! This is no place for boys!" My husband and I tried frantically to calm Bud down, but every sound that came from the boys in front of us heightened Bud's hysteria. I quickly realized that the boys had recognized the cause-and-effect in action, and were playing it. The pattern went something like this. The boys would whisper-whisper-giggle, and Bud would shriek "No! Stop it boys! No talking!" and then, a bit louder, the boys would say to each other "Blah, blah, blah..." and Bud would go right over the edge of hysteria - blotchy-faced sobbing, head banging, screeching - until we could calm him down a little. As soon as he settled down, we'd hear "la, la, la..." from the seat in front of us, and it would all begin again.
My husband and I looked at each other in desperation. I assume his head was pouding as hard as mine, and that he was feeling just about as helpless and incompetent. I just kept thinking that the plane would start moving any second, and the sound of the engine would drown out the boys, and the movement of the plane would lull Bud to sleep. At the very least, we'd be able to turn on the DVD player and provide a distraction. I thought about approaching the boys' mother, but what would I say? Please ask your boys to be silent for the duration of the trip. Please ask them not to hum. It occurred to me that I might be mis-assigning bad intent to these boys simply because I wanted to blame someone.
Finally, I got up and climbed over the still-shrieking Bud and my harried-looking husband and approached the other Mom. "My son is autistic," I said. "And sometimes he gets triggered by other children. Would you mind switching seats with us?" She began to agree to move, but a swarm of flight attendants arrived. Okay, two, but it felt like a swarm.
"Ma'am, you need to take your seat."
"Ma'am, you may switch seats once we are in the air."
"Ma'am, please get out of the aisle."
I lumbered back into my seat while the giggle-hum-shriek fest continued. One of the flight attendants returned with a tiny airplane-packet of pretzels and offered them to the blotchy red mess that was my son. "If you're good," he said, "you can have these pretzels."
"He's autistic," I told him. "Good luck. I don't think pretzels are going to do it."
"Don't worry," he assured me. "Just take a deep breath. My daughter did this for an entire flight once. You're not bothering us. We're all just fine."
I turned to face the window and burst into tears. Did he really think I gave a hoot that Bud might be disturbing him? What veteran of air travel doesn't recognize that putting up with screaming children is just part of the package?
My son was in red-alert CRISIS. And worse, I believed he was being taunted right in front of me and I was completely at a loss as to how to stop it. It was as though all of the fears and anxieties that have been lurking just below the surface erupted in that moment:
Bud is unable to cope with people and life and the unexpected and it is much, much worse than I thought.
Other children will tease him for sport, just because they can.
No one will come to his rescue.
Other children can be calmed down with pretzels. We are totally, hopelessly, and eternally screwed.
I stared out the window and sobbed and sobbed as the engines started and the plane lifted off, our 1:20 flight finally leaving the ground at 2:45 after an eternity in the Cramped and Stuffy Backseat of No Escape. My husband tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see Bud sound asleep against his shoulder. I cried some more. The off-duty flight attendant brought me Kleenex. The mom across the aisle came over to see if we still wanted to switch seats. Bud continued to sleep through the rest of the flight, and woke when we touched down. After he had spoken a few sentences, the boys in front of us launched into a chorus of Hakuna Matata and the cycle was on the verge of starting again, but the other mom had finally keyed in and gave a stern word to her sons who were quiet until we got to the gate.
The boys were in line in the rest room at the airport a few people in front of my husband.
"Is he behind us?"
"Does he look mad?"
It wasn't all in my head. It was a game to them.
My husband and I were quiet in the car on the way home, except for a lot of heavy sighing. "We were right there," my husband said. "What's going to happen when we're not?"