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Traveling on The Spectrum

November 4, 2013 - Colleen Carpenter
What's your first reaction when someone say they intend on flying with an 8 year old...on the autism spectrum? It's something I've been doing for years with Lucas and when flight is involved, it's generally an experience with highs and lows, which I expect is typical of airline travel with any eight year old. Lucas and I usually fly to Florida once a year. He got his diagnosis four years ago, but it wasn't until last year that I realized we had the opportunity to "pre-board" (with people in wheelchairs, etc) the flight because of his diagnosis. We've done it once and I felt guilty doing it.

Last week, as we waited at the gate to board our Southwest flight, I decided instead of boarding with the "pre-boarders", I'd go with the families with children four and under. This meant that the pre-boards and everyone in boarding zone A boarded before us. Here's the tricky part: Southwest doesn't have assigned seating. There are 60 people per boarding group. As we waited for the A group to board, I watched Lucas unravel slowly. He enjoys flying, but not waiting. Normal eight year old preference, right? He started self-stimulating (stimming) with his hands, whimpering, asking constant questions and convinced himself we were never going to get on the airplane and looked like a walking ball of anxiety. The gate attendant didn't ask any questions when we boarded with the families with small children. We found a couple of seats together and I spent about 35 minutes trying to wind him down.

Fast-forward to the return flight. We were again flying Southwest (not a shock, as it's my preferred airline). This is important because it makes me feel extra guilty for pre-boarding. The earlier you board, the better seat you get. Had we been flying any other airline, I wouldn't hesitate to ask the gate attendant for a pre-boarding pass. When the seats are assigned, the only advantage we're gaining is time waiting in line. As I approached Southwest staff member, I said, "Excuse me, he has auti..." I didn't even finish the word and he had placed the blue pre-boarding packet in my hand. We were in line behind 3 people in wheelchairs.

There was a time when I would have looked to see if people were staring at us, judging us. I'm beyond that now. We got seats in the third row of the plane. And as we sat down, with extremely good seats, I felt a little less guilty about pre-boarding. Everyone around us got the gift of a calm, cool and collected boy and a relaxed mom with him for the 2 hour flight.

So heads up all you autism moms and dads: Go for the pre-boarding pass and save yourself, your child and everyone on board the stress of boarding as assigned if you know your kiddo needs it. A happy kid and parent makes for a more peaceful flight. And that is something all passengers will appreciate.


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