It was my sixteenth birthday and me, my friend, my mom, and my friend’s mom embarked on a short weekend trip to London. But the biggest challenge of the trip wasn’t the Broadway show, it wasn’t getting lost in the big city or even the public transportation: it was the plane.
Many Autistics have trouble with flying. For some, the tedious and unsupportive security process can be daunting. Pat-downs often make Autistic people uncomfortable and violated. The brusque attitude of TSA Agents and Airport Staff makes Autistics feel isolated and unsafe. Also, the Airport is a vast and crowded environment; finding a place to decompress and have time alone is few and far between.
On my trip, the airport did not offer much stress. My mother already had TSA Pre-Check making the security process smooth and comfortable. I had a nice burger for dinner; after a long day of no proper meals, this was a relief. I also received plenty of time to destress by reading a book. But, I was soon confronted with a rude awakening. Despite my preparations, I was quite unready for the challenge of actually flying.
I think the hardest challenge on the flight was the seat itself. Being six feet tall and in a larger body didn’t help. The tightness of the seat was excruciatingly distracting. It was not just physically uncomfortable but it also aggravated me mentally and emotionally. At the same time, I was placed next to the cramped aisle. We chose the aisle seat intentionally; theoretically, I should have had additional room and comfort since I could spill into the aisle. However, we were wrong and this strategy backfired. The aisle was busy throughout the flight. And at the beginning, every few seconds clothes or a food cart brushed against me and people walked by crunching me even further. Spilling out into the aisle to relieve my pain was not possible. This all culminated in a panic attack. I don’t know how to describe it. At the time I said it felt like not being able to breathe; I felt trapped and there was nowhere for me to go. My body experienced muscle cramps and general achiness. It got to the point where there was a legitimate conversation about getting off the plane.
I survived. Surprisingly, I found a respite in the area near the exit row and in the bathroom. I powered through the flight. I found myself no longer able to read a book so I popped on Forrest Gump and then some music. Eventually, the flight concluded and I finally stepped off the plane. An hour or two later I found myself in a bed taking a nice nap: I was free of the chains of sensory overload.
My mother and I reflected upon this experience. I wrote down my thoughts in my poetry journal and I thought about what could possibly be changed on my return flight. We booked an exit row seat. The extra legroom and space reduced the chances of experiencing a sensory overload. I also bought an anti-aching cream. This was already necessary due to the aches I had from walking but it would also help my legs relax on the flight. I also took a non-night flight. My first flight was during the night because it would theoretically not cut into our vacation and give us a night to sleep on the plane; however, I was not able to get some sleep and so it was an unhelpful experience. But with a day flight, I was not so tired and so I was more realistic about what I would do on the flight. I read over half of The Odyssey, watched some of season two of Succession and I also listened to some music.
Overall, I learned some important lessons about flying. My seat choice matters a lot and I have to take extra measures to avoid a panic attack. It is clear I should avoid night flights, that way I will have more energy to power through the flight especially since it is highly unrealistic that I will sleep anyways. I also need to prepare myself with entertainment options and have access to important medicines such as Xanax and ointments for my sensory aches. Noise-cancelling headphones are a must and a sleep mask is necessary for night flights.
What can change? Airlines and Airports should seriously consider following the lead of American Airlines with its “It’s Cool to Fly American Airlines” which prepares Autistic children and their families for the tribulations of flying (https://tinyurl.com/yze78ecr). All Airport and Airline employees should also be required to undergo extensive disability and neurodiversity training; the FAA should also set clear guidelines for how Autistic passengers should be treated. The Department of Transportation is already focusing on a passenger’s bill of rights that will be heavily focused on treating passengers with disabilities with respect.
My last recommendation may seem bold but I think all passengers will appreciate this: make the seats bigger and the aisles wider. Not only do small seats and aisles make the flying experience unpleasant and discriminatory towards passengers with disabilities but there is a serious argument to say it is unsafe. I had difficulty strapping in and getting out of my seat. I also noticed that the aisles were prone to jamming and people getting stuck: what would happen in an emergency? This is a complicated and multifaceted issue. The obvious concern of a rise in prices does come. Also, a comfortable option for disabled passengers does currently exist: first class. Yet, it is important to realize the financial challenges that come along with this. I may pay a premium for an exit row seat but it is a stretch for my family to cough up hundreds of extra dollars so I can get a first-class seat: it is unrealistic and unfair. I don’t expect changes to happen overnight, but hopefully, changes will begin to occur and I am sure a smart airline will realize the value of attracting disabled passengers: we would love to fly with an airline that prioritizes passengers!