I want you to imagine the following scenario:
You followed all the steps in the SEN Travel blog series; you picked up the hidden disability lanyard from the assistance desk at the airport, you’d prepared the social story weeks in advance and had all the sensory/distraction activities and snacks packed into your rucksack.
You get onto your plane and find your seat, suddenly your child starts getting anxious. He doesn’t like the feeling of the seatbelt restricting his movements, the engine is too noisy, lights are being switched on and off, doors are being shut, people are talking loudly, there are too many smells and your child can’t communicate how he feels so he screams.
He tries to take his clothes off, he doesn’t understand what is happening or why it’s happening he just knows he doesn’t like it. You give him some snacks, you give him an activity but it doesn’t work. Your carefully laid plans go to waste. You want to give him a cuddle but you know it will make him ‘worse’. The best you can do is to let him know that you’re there and everything will be okay, hoping that once you’re in the air he will calm down as you do your best to comfort him.
Imagine that you are also breastfeeding your happily sleepy little baby at the same and because you’re a single parent you just have to suck it up and employ every strategy that you can think of to get through it because you know it will be over soon, you know your child and you know he just needs time to adjust to the situation, once the seatbelt sign is off he will curl up and fall asleep it’s just those initial moments before takeoff.
You feel embarrassed, you are on high alert conscious that people are staring and whispering, judging. You aren’t doing it on purpose, you hope they can recognise this is a situation involving a child with additional needs and you’re just doing your best.
Now imagine that a woman sitting in front of you turns around to look at you, her face a mixture of disgust and annoyance.
“You could try controlling your child, maybe actually be a parent. Or better yet don’t bring him out in public until he knows how to behave.”
Now you probably don’t actually need to imagine any of that, you’ve probably experienced it before. This is exactly what happened to me the first time I took my children on a plane. Other passengers mumbling in agreement that ‘kids like that shouldn’t be allowed out, it’s a nuisance.’. Those few mins of ‘nuisance’ for them is everyday for me. Am I not allowed to enjoy life or give my children experiences for the sake of a few others being inconvenienced by a child that doesn’t understand what is happening to them? Of course not!
What you need is a ‘prepared response’ and to feel confident in what you’re saying. Now that W is older and is able to communicate better, we can talk about how he’s feeling, he’s used to planes and he knows what’s happening. He will sometimes talk through everything that’s going on around him (like a commentator), and that’s still ‘annoying’ for some people! But it provides him with comfort and helps reduce his anxiety. I don’t need these responses anymore but I’ve chosen my top two, you may also decide that instead of responding to other passengers you will preemptively warn them of your situation and what could happen worst case scenario.
What to say to another passenger that tuts/sighs, makes comments to other passengers but doesn’t speak to you directly.
I’m so sorry, he has a neurodisability and autism. He finds the take off and landing extremely difficult to cope with but once we are in the air he will calm down and probably fall asleep.
What to say to another passenger that has confronted you in a rude and abrasive manner, making derogatory comments about your child and your parenting:
How about you mind your own business instead of making comments about a child that clearly has additional needs. It’s not an ideal situation but I’m trying my best and your attitude is extremely unhelpful.
These are statements I have genuinely made when travelling and I usually find by the end of the journey people commend my children on their behaviour once they realise that it really is only during take off and landing. Feel free to adapt these to suit your own situation or find your own method. But I have found that one of the biggest issues when it comes to travelling with an additional needs child tends to be the intolerance of others.