Airports are mazes. I’m no frequent traveler, and the last thing I remember about the traveling I’ve done, is the configuration of the airport. As we walked from the gate to the luggage carousel, I felt as though this was my first, instead of my third, trip to this airport. I remembered nothing about the place.
For six months, the ABA team and me prepared my son for this trip. We thought we had it covered, from the moment he stepped foot in our local airport, to the time he returned home. He was given social stories, shown photos, and watched YouTube videos about everything from building sand castles to the jet’s toilet flushing.
But prep does not mean perfect. We had a story about the plane and the rental car but not for getting from one to the other. Lost among all those stories was the one we needed most of all.
That turned out to be a big mistake.
Getting off the plane, my son’s anxiety increased. The first thing he asked was “Where’s Jess?” Our senior ABA tutor came with us on this trip, but was seated separately from us on the plane. I had texted her once we landed and we agreed to meet at the baggage claim.
The airport’s “hallways” were open breezeways to the outdoors. We could feel the gentle wind. The temperature was a perfect 77 degrees. It took me a few moments to process that I was outdoors in January, without a coat, in perfect weather.
But rather than relaxing and enjoying our arrival in paradise, I worried. I did not know where were going any more than my son did. I was following the signs. The breezeway seemed to go on forever. My arms were full of the same bags that dug into me as I checked in to the airport 2100 miles away.
From our vantage point, I could see we were on the second floor. How long would we walk? And once we got the bags, how would we find the rental car company?
My husband never worries about these things. Like most people, he knows he will eventually find his way and get to the goal. No big deal. Not me. Generally, I’m a planner anyway but since my son came along, I’m 100 times worse. I’m always trying to stay one step ahead, to prepare both of us, in case of unpleasantness in his world. I’m there to make everything okay for him. And I know I can’t always do it.
As we walked the long breezeway, I knew I was heading for trouble. My son repeated, “Where are we going?” “Where’s Jess?” over and over. After about the 20th time, the mental and physical baggage weighing me down, I told my husband to wait for Jess. Eventually, she appeared, excited, happy and a source of strength and calming to my son.
We continued the walk and came to an escalator. Every step of the way, my son was narrating and questioning. “Where are we going?’’ “We’re going to get the car.” “Where is the car?” “What kind of car is it?” “We’re going doing the escalator.” Self-regulation and self soothing mechanism for a highly agitated, yet excited little boy.
The first floor of the airport is equally open to the outdoors on the street side. That open area led straight out to the very busy airport main road. That street was filled with vehicles making loud noise in the bright light of a busy afternoon. This was not good. The little guy was afraid.
It turned out that we had to walk around a corner and wait on a bench while my husband rode a shuttle to the parking lot to retrieve the rental car. Jess, my son and I sat on the bench with a bunch of luggage and waited. And waited. Buses, cars, taxis, and large SUVs passed, stopped, dropped people off, and rev’ed their engines feet from my scared little boy. Jess worked to distract him. She showed him pictures from magazines showing animals and ocean. She gave him positive reinforcement with fruit snacks. I tried to find out how long my husband would take at the rental car window. I got no answers.
Finally, my husband arrived. I put my son in the back and he wanted to sit with mommy so I got in back with him. With my son strapped in his seat belt, he seemed to calm slightly. But then, I noticed something new as we pulled away from the airport.
He was jumpy. When large vehicles pulled next to the car in which we were seated, he started to panic. He would yell, “No! No!” “Go!” The problem was that the rental was a car and he is used to traveling in an SUV where most vehicles are lower or less intrusive to his space. The worst of his reaction was to big trucks or service vehicles.
That fear has not gone away. It has morphed into a fear of vehicles in parking lots. Now, even at home, he is highly agitated in parking lots. He tries to get me to represent to him that all the other vehicles in the parking lot are off and will not start until he gets into whatever building we are headed. He covers his ears through the parking lot and counts loudly, spells, echos, and, at times, screams until he makes it inside. This includes the school parking lot.
The problem is larger than you’d think. I had no idea how many times we park and get in and out of the car, let alone how far we have to park in some lots. To school, swim, drums, stores, pharmacies, doctor’s offices, etc. I find myself driving for up to 15 minutes to find the right spot to park. It is invasive enough that, on our return at a (previously scheduled) neurology appointment, his doctor has insisted we obtain a handicapped placard for our vehicle. I’m hoping his sensory overload is temporary. That a program with ABA will reverse this new behavior.
For now, paradise came with a price. One that he continues to pay each day.