Dear Everyone In Every Seat On the Airplane   20 comments

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Earlier this week, a blog entitled “Dear Daddy In Seat 16C” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shanell-mouland/dear-daddy-in-seat-16c_b_4585865.html) went viral. If you haven’t read it, a businessman is kind, patient, and even helpful towards a 3-year-old with autism and her mother during a flight.  It’s a nice read and I couldn’t help but to recall having a similar experience after a flight I took with a person with special needs a little over a year ago.  This person wasn’t, however, an adorable little girl but rather a person I deem to be our society’s ultimate underdog:  a middle-aged adult with special needs.

My family has had the privilege of providing what’s known as shared living to a one-of-a-kind, amazing man named James for the past eleven years .  The back story of how this came to be is that James was my favorite individual at a day program I ran, my wife Jen and I knew how unhappy he was in his group home, and we decided to offer him the chance to live with us.  James took us up on the offer and the rest is history—a history that has done nothing but enrich our lives and those of our daughters Skylar and Alyssa, as James is truly a part of our family.

One of James’ longtime aspirations had been to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, a ten-hour drive from our home in Worcester, Massachusetts that’s far too long for his tastes. This left us the option of flying, something James had always been too frightened to attempt. Such fear, of course, hardly makes him unique, as many people harbor the same terror, but that didn’t keep Jen and I from bringing it up to him periodically. He didn’t enjoy the subject and told us as much in no uncertain terms: He will never get married because he can’t get divorced if he’s not married and he’s never flying because he can’t crash if he doesn’t fly!  His logic was unimpeachable so we didn’t attack it head-on so much as adopt a subliminal approach to try to change his mind by occasionally presenting him with Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame brochures and asking him to take look at their website every now and then.  Despite our oh-so-subtle efforts, he remained unmoved…until going on the computer and expressing intrigue over the Inner Harbor in Baltimore being all lit up at night and the dining possibilities it offered.  When I pointed out how Baltimore was a shorter, cheaper trek–one we could more easily drive back from if the flight  proved too much for him–James finally agreed to get on an airplane after years of prodding on our part.  If the Baltimore flight experience was a success, we would then fly to Cleveland in the  near future.

In preparation for the flight, we role played for months some of the aspects of flying that don’t involve flying at all but figured to be stressors for him, such as removing his baseball hat to go through airport security and balancing on a moving walkway while carrying a bag.  At the same time, we skipped out on any flight simulation or airplane desensitization programs because such larger things would only serve to build James’ anxiety rather than reduce it.  No, our best bet was to just get on that plane and hope for success that resulted in a future flight to Cleveland and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

James was nervous when the day finally arrived but no more than I was.  What had I gotten us into?  James was a largely peaceful, considerate man who’d come an extraordinarily long way over the years but, like anyone else, when in a panic would behave accordingly.  I dreaded having to explain any screaming, yelling, seat kicking, or loud proclamations of how we’re going to crash to airport security as well as put up with all the dirty looks and demands to shut up from the other passengers we were destined to receive.  As the airplane started to move, I realized there was no turning back.  We were all in this together–me, James, and about 200 strangers.

James gripped my arm tight as the plane took off.  I reassured him he was fine but he wasn’t buying it and his voice began to escalate.  It wasn’t a major scene yet but it was growing and took a turn for the unique when he essentially climbed into my lap and hugged me with all his might, complaining about his ears popping. I fed him Mentos (James had long refused to chew gum) and there we were, just two dudes hugging it out and sharing candy at 20,000 feet. People looked over but I didn’t care, as I expected as much. What I didn’t expect were the nods of support they were giving us before quickly looking away.   Well, at least we’d been blessed with the right people to undertake this journey with.  James got to the edge of yelling a few times but never reached it, managing to calm himself back down to fit in fairly well.  By the time we landed, I was covered in sweat but relieved.  “You did it!” I told him over and over.  “The hard part is over.”  The look of trepidation on his face, however, informed me that it wasn’t.

 “I don’t know, Sean,” he replied.  “I didn’t like how it felt.”  He repeated these sentiments several times during our walk through the airport terminal and cab ride to the hotel.  “My ears kept popping. I thought my head was going to explode.”  What could I say in response?  To him, I’m sure it did feel that way, as an airplane ride can be an overwhelming experience for anybody, let alone a person with sensory issues.  “I’m not sure I want to fly back.  You said I didn’t have to.”

He was right but there were pros and cons to weigh. We considered driving but renting a car at one airport and leaving it at another was a pricey endeavor we determined we’d just as soon avoid.  We also discussed his aversion to long car rides and, while Baltimore to Worcester wasn’t as epic a drive as Cleveland to Worcester would have been, six hours in a car wasn’t something James would have enjoyed, either.  “I think I’ll give it one more try,” he finally relented. We decided to drop the subject for the rest of the day and just try to have fun.

When the morning arrived, James again wasn’t sure he wanted to fly.  I suggested repeatedly he chew gum to combat the ear popping and he finally agreed that if the popping lessened, he could fly and agreed to try the gum.  As the plane took off, I said a quick prayer we didn’t crash and he’d keep it together as well as he did on the first flight.  I also prayed the people around us would be as half as understanding.

My prayers were answered.  The actual flight home was a repeat of the first one in every way. Despite his occasional proclamations about not wanting to crash for all around us to hear, James’ main issue was the ear popping and general weird feeling of not being on the ground.  People again glanced over as he more or less sat in my lap but just like the first flight, everyone appeared sympathetic and respectful.   “Great job!” I told him, covered in sweat when we landed.  “You did it again!”

“No, I’m never doing that again, Sean,” he replied as we stood up to disembark.  “Never!  Don’t show me pictures of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, either.  I don’t like rock music anymore anyways.”

He may not have liked rock music anymore but that didn’t keep seemingly everyone we’d shared the flight with from treating him like a rock star over the next twenty minutes.  “Way to go”, “nice job”, and “you’re so brave” filled the air as people approached to pat him on the back.  This treatment occurred both on the plane and in the terminal.  He looked down and smiled in response each time, deservedly pleased with himself for having the courage to both try something he’d been so fearful of and to endure something so uncomfortable.  No, we wouldn’t be flying to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame but the trip had still been a smashing success in my estimation and his, too. But he never would have been able to do it without the kindness of several hundred strangers. Thanks to all of them!

Posted January 15, 2014 by seandal in Autism

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20 responses to “Dear Everyone In Every Seat On the Airplane

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  1. Sean, once again, this is great! You and your wife are amazing to open up your hearts, family and home to this young man, and to also help him tackle his fear of flying so that he now knows he can do it! There is definetely a special place in Heaven for you both!! 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words and for reading, Monique!

  3. Very cool! I am so glad James had a successful first flight! And just a quick tidbit- TSACared.com is an awesome resource for families if a passenger has special needs. Even something as simple as a food allergy or special accommodations that may be necessary for boarding the plane, etc. it’s a great website to go to for contact information to discuss future flight plans.

  4. Thank you, Betsy! TSACared.com sounds like a great resource. Thanks for sharing it!

  5. Sean, what a wonderful heartwarming story. I’m so happy James was able to make the flight! God bless you, Jen and your wonderful family! I look forward to future posts!

  6. What a great story Sean! I have so much admiration and deep respect for you and Jen. I know you feel just as blessed by James as he is by you. Amazing story!

  7. What an excellent story Sean! Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. Thank you for the kind words and reading, Matthew!

  9. There are hundreds of instances where you and Jen have made such an impact on James. I am delighted to know that people can be understanding. I would like to have had a picture of James sitting in your lap…

  10. Haha! Yes, a fond memory I’d love to re-live.

  11. An absolutely beautiful story!! As the mother of a 6’2″ severely disabled 18 year-old, I agree, people were much kinder when he was an adorable 4 yr-old. TRUE acceptance is when EVERYONE with a disability is cared for and accepted. Do you have a Facebook page, I would LOVE to follow your story.

  12. I have a child with special needs and have mostly found that people are caring and understanding. I’m sure it’s harder with an adult but your story made me less fearful of the future. I’m glad to know that as he grows up, there will continue to be wonderful strangers to give us the “nod” when needed. Well done Dad 🙂

  13. Loved the blog, as the mother of a 28 year old autistic son, like autism hippie, I’d love to follow your story once you have a facebook page up

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