airplane wing

I typically travel only a few times a year for work. In less than three months, I’ve had four trips. Typically, they last about four nights.

Kane doesn’t always adapt well to these. He doesn’t sleep well. He clings to me. He sometimes cries. He does much better than he used to, when the trips would be prefaced or followed by meltdowns. We’ve come a long way in a few years.

There’s a balance between letting him know early enough so that a trip isn’t a surprise, and not early enough so that he’s anxious about it for days.

Some of the ways we transition are by being very clear about the logistics of my departure and arrival so that Kane can get the lay of the week. Jeff thinks that taking me to the airport helps, but that’s not always possible and Kane is learning that. Getting a treat like donuts or bagels or planning something fun right after I leave also helps. I also give Kane a tour of my hotel after I get checked in. It gives context for where I am during my time away.

Jeff is a champ. He manages to fit in plenty of fun “buddy” time so that it feels adventurous. Kane also accepts that things are a bit different when “Daddy’s in charge.” They do very well together, with their grilling and game time and whatever else they do, and the essential needs like school, food, and sleep are met.

Now, that’s when I travel. When we all travel, it’s a slightly different story.

This summer, we are going to see some friends in Rhode Island. It will be the first time that Kane has flown in about six years. The last time was a solo trip with me. I took him to Texas to see my sister and family when he was three. I had to bribe him with a lollipop each time we went to the public restroom at the airport, and he reached his limit being there well before we boarded. I don’t recall too many details, but I do remember receiving a head-butt to the face at one point and a swollen lip. He was a challenge up to the point of getting on the plane, and then he slept for a majority of the flight. This was before his diagnosis.

The thing about travel is it uproots the norm. There are plenty of new sights, sounds, and other sensory experiences. Often, those elements are coupled with the anxiety of the unknown and a schedule that’s either too different or too full than the typical one.

We’ve had trips where Kane didn’t want to sleep on a foldout sofa because it was too close to the air conditioning unit, and instead slept between Jeff and me in the bed. There have been times we when went to dinner and he didn’t eat because what we ordered wasn’t what he expected (I recall one time — oh horror of horrors — when the pizza was square instead of round). There were times when he’d been pushed past his limit for one reason or another, and he had meltdowns in hotel rooms where we hoped no one heard us.

These were all learning experiences. We didn’t fail, and neither did he. Each experience helped us understand valuable things about ourselves and Kane, our limits and his, what each of us could deal with and what we couldn’t. And some of these things have eased over time, with maturity and wisdom, both his and ours as his parents.

I think it’s natural to want to avoid the travel experiences that prove to be stressful, but we’ve also had a lot of fun together as a family when we go on trips. Kane loves to swim, so going anywhere where there’s a pool is a hit. He generally likes to eat out. Throw in a park, or an amusement ride, or a treat of any kind, and he’s usually down with it. He’s also become much more aware of his limits and more vocal about his wishes.

Also, Jeff and I are a bit more chilled out about it (er, especially me). We avoid the pitfalls where we can, but we also know that we’ll deal with whatever arises. We build in a level of predictability, but we also build in space for contingencies. And we have become comfortable with the idea of things not being predictable. C’est la vie.

We booked this year’s trip early, and right after Kane expressed his excitement, he also expressed his anxiety about flying. We’ve spent a couple of months talking him through it, explaining what it’s like to travel on planes, and answering questions. We’ve reassured him that air travel is safe, explained the nuances of it, watched videos, and (hopefully) helped him see the fun and adventure in this trip. We’ve talked about the things that he’s nervous about, and assured him that other people, including us, get nervous when doing something new or something they haven’t done in a long time.

Life is full of both exciting and nerve-wracking events. I view these emotions as two sides of the same coin. Some of us lean a little more in one direction. I get that.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a broader view of our place in the world. I realized that I needed to model the behaviors in life that I wanted Kane to embrace, and one of those behaviors is having a sense of adventure. I don’t want to deny us enjoyable experiences simply because there’s a risk that something might go awry.

And just like everything else we have learned in our journey raising our son, we are learning to be adventurers. We do it at our own pace and in the ways that fit us, of course. But I also recognize that, despite the nerves we might feel inside, we all have a need to expand within this human experience and to stretch our wings and fly.

About Tabitha MacGowan

Hi, I’m Tabitha. I’m an author, autism parent, and advocate of acceptance, compassion, and love. I believe that we are all here for each other and we can co-create the world we want to live in. My book, Phig and the Eaven Prophecy, is a delicious fantasy written from the perspective of a boy on the autism spectrum. I invite you to join me and be a part of my magical world!

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