Going through airport security with my family is not on my top ten list of good things to do in life. I start off calm (in the general sense of that word) and collected, knowing exactly where I put everything I need for the flight. By the time we’re on the other side of the security checkpoint, our backpacks are disheveled, our shoelaces are dragging, our boarding passes are crumpled, and nothing is where I had it. Our things seem to scatter in every direction, and we travel with a lot of things due to special needs. From special snacks to special toys to special essential oils, our bags attract attention and often raise the TSA’s eyebrow. This time, the one item we could not afford to lose track of was Zach’s communication device. Newly replaced due to damage, the TobiiDynavox device contained hundreds of customized buttons which took dozens of hours to create. I could not imagine losing the device (when it hadn’t been backed up properly yet) or realizing, once on the plane, that we left it in a gray inspection bin.
With a layer of stress sweat dripping down my back, I mad-dashingly plucked our stuff from the bins as they came down the conveyer belt. I was simultaneously keeping Zach from getting whisked away in a sea of travelers. And Zach was stretching to get everything for everybody, since in his world, everything must be put away at all times. I was so focused on getting the device I almost overlooked our coats. The floppy sleeve of one was almost chewed up by the metal rolling pins.
With snacks, toys, oils, coats, and device, we made our way to gate H18. I know the gate well. It’s at the end of the terminal past Sbarro Pizza and Frontera Grill. Its existence has become, through the years, a gateway of happiness and of sadness. It’s where I anticipate the smiling faces and open arms waiting for us after we land at O’Hare. It’s also where I dry my tears and regain my composure after saying goodbye while I wait to board a 737 back to California. While waiting, I scanned the black beam seats and made mental guesses about who would be sitting across from us. I tend to look around for the pilots and crew who are making the journey with us. I spotted three of them standing near the door; two women and one man. The man looked a lot like Ed Harris in “The Right Stuff.”
A woman with a very phlegmy cough walked by. I used my fluffy coat as a temporary face mask and turned Zach in the opposite direction. Having had the flu a week earlier was enough! Then an equally upsetting sound caught my attention. Somewhere close was an infant who was mighty unhappy. And Zach heard the baby as well. His expression changed; shrieking babies are to him like nails scraped on a chalkboard.
I was already apprehensive about the flight for many reasons. Wrapped in worry, I predicted how an unhappy baby sitting near us could upset the applecart even more and cause some physical outbursts that would be nearly impossible to quell on a crowded airplane. And with a four hour flight to be endured (four and a half if the we had headwinds) the chances of a teenage boy with autism remaining calm in the midst of a squealing baby were not looking good. It’s not that I expect babies to be quiet. It’s that I can’t expect people to understand why Zach gets so angry and lashes out. I wished his noise canceling headphones were baby-cry proof. We have a button on the device that says, “I get upset when babies cry,” but we couldn’t get him to use it at that moment.
With stories in the news about families with autism being asked to leave restaurants, amusement parks, and even airplanes, due to upsetting behavior, my fear of becoming the next family taken off a jetliner grew. If a girl and her mom were escorted off a United Airlines flight after an emergency landing for simply saying that cold food could make the girl scratch, I had a clear idea of what could happen if Zach started flailing his arms at 37,000 feet above earth.
“Group 6 now boarding.” Here we go, I thought. Time to keep myself from having a panic attack. Time to keep Zach calm as possible. Time to try to avoid the rampant germs being spread from every cough and sneeze. As the crew greeted us, there was a flight attendant who cast eyes upon Zach just a second too long (in my opinion). Maybe she was trained in spotting potential trouble among passengers. I hoped the attendant was taken by his blue eyes rather than by a sense of foreboding.
We found our seats, situated our backpacks, and tucked our coats in the overhead bins. I always take along plenty of crayons, coloring books, mini puzzles, mini Play-Doh cans, Water WOW! books, snacks, sensory toys, and more. Among those items were Rescue Remedy and lavender oil. As I stuffed everything in the seat pocket for quick retrieval, I noticed there were no baby cries. Outside were blue skies. And we pushed back from the gate on time. An unknown feeling popped up: composure! I was calm and composed ON A PLANE!
I glanced at Zach who, in his window seat, was adjusting all the window shades he could reach. On his lap was his communication device. We hadn’t traveled with this one before. As the crew came around with the drink cart, I had an idea. After asking Zach’s permission to make a button on the device, I quickly searched for an image of a beverage and typed in club soda please. We really want him communicating what he wants instead of filling in the blanks for him all the time. Who knows, he might have actually wanted coffee, but something with bubbles was a pretty sure thing.
A moment later, a man leaned in and placed three cocktail napkins on our tray tables. When he asked Zach what he’d like to drink, I prompted Zach to press the button. It took several seconds, because Zach has to turn down the volume and the brightness every time he finishes using it, so the sound and light needed to be restored. I thought the flight attendant might grow impatient, but I watched his face as he watched Zach. There was a mix of curiosity and warmth in his expression. Club soda please made the man’s eyes sparkle.
“Of course!” he exclaimed. “I’ll get you a can of club soda!” Zach nodded yes. “What’s your name?” Prompted to turn the volume up and the make the screen bright again, Zach eventually found the Zach button. And the man waited for him to do so.
“Hey Zach! Nice to meet you buddy! I’m Sam.”
Sam gave Zach a full can of club soda and then reached into the cart to retrieve two biscotti wrapped in cellophane. I didn’t have the heart to intercept the glutenous cookies at that moment. The gesture was so sweet. Sam smiled at me and asked Zach’s age. We chatted briefly as I pulled out my American Airlines Advantage card in anticipation of ordering some wine. When I did, and when my husband said “ditto,” Sam pulled out two six-ounce mini bottles of cabernet sauvignon and said, “Put your card away. It’s on me.” Another unknown in-flight feeling popped up: gratitude.
I settled into seat 9D with my cab and listened to Andrea Bocelli. Zach guzzled his drink and then fell asleep. We used his coat as a pillow and propped his head. The plane was chasing the sun to the horizon, and a deep Egyptian blue sky surrounded us. Sam strode from one end of the jet to the other several times as flight attendants do, and he often paused at our row to see if we needed anything. His presence, his patience, and his professionalism added to my sense of calm.
The crayons, the Water WOW! books, even the Rescue Remedy stayed securely stashed in the seat pocket. We didn’t need them at all. The slight dip in altitude signaled the start of the descent. That’s usually when I allow my fingernails to come off the armrests and I breathe a sigh of relief, but that day I actually felt a teeny bit of disappointment! Sam approached and made sure Zach was buckled. I prompted Zach to thank Sam for his kindness, and Sam asked him for a high five. Zach’s sturdy slap made him laugh. He asked me questions about Zach and the device, and he encouraged us to keep doing what we’re doing, even though it’s hard work. He thought the device was fantastic. He gave my arm a pat of encouragement. I hoped he heard the sincerity in my words when I thanked him for patience and generosity.
We had fared well. Baby crying? Negative. Panic attack? Negative. Coughing and sneezing passengers within 10 feet? Negative. Turbulence? Negative! Escorted off the plane at Denver International? Negative. Not only did nothing bad happen, something great took place. Yes, I had a good flight. But what would stay in my heart was the altruism of a flight attendant who went beyond his employer’s expectations and made a special needs individual feel welcomed, cared for, and understood. Good flight attendants are hospitable and cordial. Great ones are sincerely caring and benevolent. Sam was a great one.
The 737 touched down and gracefully perched its wings at gate A4, another familiar passageway. Although I missed my family back in the Midwest, Sam’s kindness was kind of a shield from the sadness. We took our coats out of the bins and donned the backpacks. Zach used the communication device to say bye. Sam’s warm smile was the last thing I saw as we exited the airplane. I put my puffy arm around Zach’s puffy back and counted my blessings. Sam was staying the night in Sacramento before doing the turnaround to Chicago the next morning. I hoped he had a warm and comfortable place to relax, drink a nice glass of wine, and rest before heading into the wild blue yonder yet again. The airline is lucky to have him working for them, and we were lucky to have been on his run. Would it have been the same without the device, I wondered. Maybe. I think Sam’s generosity would have shined through no matter what. But the device allowed them to connect. Perhaps its use showed a willing person how to connect to an individual with autism who cannot speak. And that is for sure on my top ten list of good things to do in life. Sometimes, actually often times, it is the seemingly “small things” in life that make the biggest impact.