As a mom of a child with autism, there’s not much that phases me anymore. Meltdowns in the stores? They don’t happen much anymore but at their peak Ethan could roll around and scream and create a spectacle of epic proportions. Haircuts? You’ve not seen a fit until you’ve seen an Ethan haircut fit, complete with slobbering and needing to restrain him in the chair. The one thing that still terrified me and literally could make me break into a cold sweat? Flying with him.
I have heard horror stories about autistic children having meltdowns for hours on flights so we have avoided it at all costs. We are an international family however, with Ian’s parents, Ethan’s grandparents living in Ireland. Eventually this kid would have to fly. When we received the invitation to go to the LG Jr Chef Academy event in Santa Monica, California, and judging Ethan’s progress over the last year, I knew it was time to take a chance. Sometimes on this autism journey (and most mothers do too I guess) you have to face your fears and try your wings.
For three weeks leading up to the big day, we read The Noisy Plane Ride which details a child’s first plane ride (Remember this book for later in this post.), and My Little Airport which was a sticker book to match some of the things we might see at the airport. We ordered headphones (Spiderman of course!), we bought enough activity books and Color Wonder to look like we were a traveling Day Care, and I packed enough of his favorite snacks that there was zero chance we would run out. Hell hath no fury like an Ethan with no Rice Krsipy Treats. Somewhere amidst all the food and entertainment we fit our clothes…for ONE night. 🙂 Finally, the day was here and at 5 AM one Tuesday morning a black car complete with booster seat (LG thought of everything!) came to pick us up and we were ready to take off.
It was still dark outside but his little eyes scanned everything on the way to the airport. He had his handy Little Airport Book ready to check off things that he spied. We got checked in and through security with no problem and United let us board early with those traveling with disabilities thanks to documentation from his therapist which helped get him settled. We had a few hours before the flight took off so we decided to get breakfast. My son eats two things for breakfast- which is typical of someone with autism. There were no Cheerios or McDonald’s pancakes in the entire airport y’all! He handled it well thankfully and I plied him with his favorites from our treasure trove of snacks.
Then it was time to takeoff and I’m not gonna lie, there was a knot in this mama’s stomach the size of the Hope diamond. I put his headphones on and held him close as the plane shook and the engines roared and steeled myself for the screaming and crying. It never came. All those nerves, worries, and fears and the worst didn’t come. He wore his head phones, played with his Ipad, colored, drank from a big boy cup, and discovered the wonder of Olivia the Pig on his personal seat TV. He handled that 3 hour flight like he’d been flying his whole life. He said it was like a roller coaster! No less than four people said how well behaved he was and I squished down the tears so they wouldn’t think I was a crazy person because they had no clue what this flight and their words meant. He had a minor meltdown when we landed and didn’t understand why we couldn’t get off immediately, but everyone was tired and ready to get off too and were so sympathetic with him and overall the flight was a victory beyond what I could have imagined.
My little traveler crashed in the car on the way to our beautiful hotel room in Santa Monica. We were able to finish our nap when we got checked in and had an amazing time at the LG Jr Chef Academy event with Sandra Lee. You can read about the whole experience here. That next morning we had plenty of time before the car picked us up to go back home so we walked the mile or so to the beach.
I have never seen my son as happy, free, and full of joy as I did on that beach near the Santa Monica pier that day. We had on swimsuits and cover ups and everyone else had on light sweaters but we didn’t care. We had made it through the flight and the event successfully and the stress was gone. This was just about having fun together and making some memories.
We wrote our names in the sand, put our feet in the icy Pacific, explored the quiet Santa Monica pier that was still closed, and as we made our way along the beach, he called hello to some volleyball players and was his little charming self and before I knew it he was serving for them! He challenged me to a race to the pier and it was pure magic running completely happy on the beach with my little boy giggling the whole way.
Then it was time to go back to the hotel to get ready for the car to pick us up. And he didn’t want to leave the beach. At all. Like the level of fit that I hadn’t seen in a long time kind of didn’t want to leave. No timer, no bribes of treats, no threats of punishment was going to convince this kid to leave the beach. So I did what many autism moms have done before me. I picked up my 40 pound toddler and carried him kicking and screaming the mile back to the hotel. Thank God I have been working out or I would have never been able to carry him and would have been crying calling a cab to take us a mile.
He got calmed down when we got back to the hotel and we made it to the airport with no problem. Security was another story however. Remember the book The Noisy Plane Ride I mentioned earlier? Well, the kid takes his shoes off at security. Now children do not have to take their shoes off but my son insists on taking his off as he goes through the metal detector. The guard was not down with this. In Houston he put them in the tub with mine but I forgot to ask him if he wanted his shoes in the tub too when I took my shoes off. As I saw him rolling around holding everyone up I thought well, I will never make that mistake again. Despite my hardest wishes the floor didn’t swallow me up so I asked the guard what he wanted me to do and the guard told him to come through. He does. Crawling like a dog. So under the eyes of everyone waiting I carried him for the second time this trip and we went through the security check. Then we were home free. He assumed his crashed out traveler position again, slept most of the way and deboarded like a champ.
We bonded and made memories on this trip that I hope we will both carry with us for the rest of our lives. That morning on the beach with my son was one of the happiest of my life and I would have carried him back to the hotel all over again. Even with the meltdown on the beach and Shoe Gate at LAX, this trip as a whole was a resounding victory and one I’m so glad we took a chance on. It’s made visiting Ireland next year not seem like an impossibility. Most of my memories of the trip will be like the photo above, my beautiful, cheeky boy smiling and happy. This was the summer Ethan and I went to Santa Monica and we both learned how to fly.