A Flight of Love and Understanding With ASD
The red-eye from Quito to Miami was delayed for two hours. Most of the passengers had been waiting near the boarding gate for more than four hours—many milling about in the aisles, a few reading, talking on their cell phones or squirming in their plastic seats. Some were sprawled out on the tile floor, a few sleeping and some snoring.
A mother and her little boy who looked to be about 10 or 11 years old sat next to each other two rows in front of me. The child was neatly dressed in a white shirt, beige trousers, wearing an aqua blue Miami Dolphins cap and matching sneakers.
In his hands, he held a computer game board and every 10 seconds or so he would yell “WHOA, YEAH, OH NO, WOW” so loud that heads turned to find out what might be wrong.
The child’s exclamations were annoying everyone within earshot. I quietly fumed from within wondering why his mother wouldn’t make him shut up or at least lower his voice. She just sat there with a blank face never uttering a word. She seemed to be completely unaware of the commotion he was causing.
I thought about admonishing her for being a bad mother. I wanted to get up and leave, but there were no other seats available. So I sat there anxiously thinking, “I hope they don’t sit anywhere near me on the plane. God forbid, I’m exhausted and need to sleep on the flight home.”
Before long, boarding began. I was in zone 5 and had been diligently searching to see if the mother and child were still in line. They were nowhere in sight, so I assumed that they had boarded the plane before me. Parents with young children typically get priority service.
Upon entering the plane, I made my way to my aisle seat. No one had yet taken the middle or window seats. It was a large aircraft, more than 40 rows deep. I couldn’t see to the back of the plane, so I assumed they had taken seats in the last rows. I stowed my carry-on under the seat, sat back and let out a sigh of relief.
A minute or two later I heard familiar sounds coming from the front of the plane: “WHOA, YEAH, OH NO, WOW.” “This can’t possibly be,” I said to myself. “Dear God, don’t let them sit next to me.” My mini prayer was of no avail because the mother approached my row, and with a slight smile motioned for me to let them in. Meanwhile, the boy continued with his commotion while clutching the device.
The mother placed her child in the window seat, secured both of their safety belts and sat with her eyes closed, completely ignoring the ruckus going on beside her. I was going out of my mind thinking that I’d never be able to sleep. I had a mid-morning business meeting in Miami regarding a major marketing campaign and needed to be alert and focused. If the meeting went awry, my career would be in jeopardy.
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I felt tremendous relief when I heard the flight attendant’s announcement to turn off all electronic equipment. My relief was short lived because the child let out a horrific howl when his mother took the device and put it in her handbag. All of the passengers around us peered over their seats to see what was causing the commotion, many of them scowling.
I felt like a prisoner in my seat, with nowhere to go. The boy’s howl turned into screams. I looked to my left and saw the mother unbuckle the boy’s seat belt, lift him into her arms and place his head against her heart while humming a quiet tune. The boy’s sobbing suddenly softened and eventually stopped altogether. His body went limp, and what seemed like several seconds, he fell asleep.
The mother arranged some pillows, placed him back into his seat and secured his safety belt. Then she turned and looked at me with a tired smile. I realized then that the boy was autistic. I had seen similar behavior in my extended family. I tried to imagine how it would be to live like this every waking hour, every day for more than 10 years.
I felt a mixture of compassion for her and shame for my selfish reaction to the boy’s behavior. I was making this matter about me and not about her, a mother who had been dealing with this for all of these years and would probably continue caring for him for the rest of her life. The exhaustion in her face was sad and riveting.
I settled into my seat, closed my eyes and thought about the moment the mother hummed a tune and placed her son’s ear against her heart. I saw love, and I understood.
This article was featured in Issue 90 – Practical Ways to Build Skills for a Lifetime