Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Airlines Preparation

So, now it's time for David to prepare for flight travel. As soon as we decide on an airline, we're going to coordinate with them to help assure success on Dave's first flight.

There has been disappointing press regarding autistic flyers. It's a tough time in history, because both caregivers of autistic people, and the airlines themselves, are pioneering in a society that only now is acknowledging the presence of neurological differences in people. And pioneering involves making mistakes. I choose to view the problems of airlines and autism as learning opportunities.

The first lesson I've learned is that there's a lot more involved in preparing neuro-atypical ("autistic") people for their first airline experience than we talk about at autism conferences or in our newsletters. Dave and I are trying to anticipate all that could cause discomfort (noise, nausea, anxiety, itsy-bitsy bathrooms...), and to establish a program of desensitization (as we have done successfully with certain phobias). It's also important to choose our airline carefully, and to inform the airline ahead of time that a neuro-atypical traveller will be on board. For instance, the reason Jet Blue and Southwest can offer cheap fairs is that they cut out the little luxuries-- in other words, they're uncomfortable. After David has gained experience, he'll be able to tolerate this. But, his first flight must be comfortable. A bad first impression could ruin flying forever...

1. So, first comes claustrophobia. David and I will save our pennies to buy first-class seats, on as LARGE a plane as we can. Once he's comfortable flying first class, we will switch to economy.

2. Second, David will start with short flights, and then move to increasingly longer ones. The objective of the first few flights is not the destination, but the flight itself. I'll take notes on how the flight is affecting Dave, so as to assess whether he is ready for a longer flight. There should, however, be a fun reward at the other end. Maybe we'll visit our old buddy, Father Chuck at San Luis Rey Mission in Oceanside, which would involve an hour-and-half long flight. Then again, Disneyland is less than an hour away.

If Dave's first flight is difficult, we'll keep taking hour-long flights until he's desensitized. When he is, we'll add another hour, then another, then another. When Dave can handle a five-hour flight, he gets his BIG REWARD:

a trip to visit his much-beloved FermiLab! Yay!

3. Third, David will wear ear plugs with silencing headphones to cut down on the engine noise. We were talking with an autistic friend the other day about her headphones and earplugs, and she said flying was still noisy even with those. We'll see...

4. So, what about fear of heights? Dave doesn't really suffer much from this, but I did take him on a couple train trips where we went high on a bridge. He was fine. Of course, 300 feet above the Carquinez Straight is hardly the same as 20,000 feet up on a plane...

5. Also, Dave has never taken artificial pharmaceuticals, because we don't want to risk their affecting his mathematical genius. However, we'll make an exception for the flight. We'll talk to his doctor about prescribing enough anti-anxiety medicine to bring with us on the plane. Maybe, Dave won't need to take it. The news stories never mention whether the autistic people kicked off of airlines had anti-anxiety medicines available. Neuro-typical (non-autistic) people routinely "take the edge off" their flying nervousness with an onboard alcoholic beverage. David is a non-drinker, so we'd better be prepared with an alternative to alcohol.

Dave and I had fun the other day when we drove to our nearby international airport and watched a plane take off. Being a scientist, he was able to explain to me the aerodynamics involved in that seemingly routine event. It isn't, though. It's really amazing that humans invented airplanes and rocket ships. Dave will probably take that first flight at Thanksgiving. We'll keep you posted as to how it goes.

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