My wife and I took our two younger children (20 and 24 years old) on vacation before Christmas. For the plane ride, the two kids sat on either side of their mother so they could both hold her hand during take-off and landing. She’s terrified of flying. I’ve never really minded flying itself; it’s navigating the airport that’s usually my biggest struggle. If anything, I rather enjoy the feeling of the acceleration forces. It’s probably the same reason I’ve always loved roller coasters. I do always want a window seat on the plane and find it somewhat more stressful when I don’t have one, so I took the window seat in the row behind them.
A mother with a young daughter took the two seats next to me. I was a little worried that the little girl might be one of the ones who gets scared or agitated and screams during the flight. That doesn’t especially bother me. I’ve been the person with a screaming child in public plenty of times in the past and there’s definitely not much a parent can do within the confines of a plane. (It’s not like you have the option to take your child outside until they calm down, after all!) But the girl was behind my wife and screaming children (and any other loud, high pitched noises) increase her anxiety.
The little girl turned out to be very self-possessed and a delight during the flight. She mostly paid attention to different things, but would sometimes point them out to me or, if she was holding it, show it to me. She would periodically tell me about something. Her mother apologized for her daughter bothering me, but I told her it was fine and, pointing out my younger two children in the seats in front of us, told her I was very used to it.
During take off, I could see the girl starting to get distressed, but her mother was ready with a soft toy which she clearly found soothing. When the changing pressure began to bother her, her mother pointed out things out the window that engaged her daughter. Later, they played alphabet games.
Part of the way through the flight, I noticed the girl would periodically tell herself something about the destination or some other piece of information while stroking an apparently soft, well-worn cloth bracelet on her wrist. The bracelet said, “I have autism”.
I had never seen a bracelet like that before. I would share a picture, but I couldn’t find a similar example online. The ones I could find looked harsh and uncomfortable or bright and gaudy by comparison. This one looked very comfortable, used soothing colors, but could be clearly read once noticed.
With that bit of information, I had an even greater appreciation for the way the child’s mother worked with the little girl. She had objects the child found soothing. She knew what things would interest and distract her. She played the games the little girl obviously enjoyed. She didn’t try to force compliance, but the end result was a very calm child. I’ve noticed a great many parents of neurotypical children don’t do as much.
I immediately understood the purpose of the bracelet, of course. If her daughter gets separated in a public place, she might have a hard time communicating information to an adult. She might melt down or go mute. Or simply struggle to figure out what she needs to say. I can remember getting “lost” in shopping malls and other public places plenty of times as a young child and how difficult that often was. In fact, now that I know I’m autistic, I wonder if autistic children have a greater tendency to get distracted or focused on something and get accidentally separated from their parents? It certainly happened to me pretty often, and I probably don’t remember all the times it actually happened. It’s something that all young children are prone to, of course, but perhaps we’re more prone to it?
There’s no great insight in this post. The brief chance encounter has just been on my mind. It does serve as a reminder that for all the “autism parents” who publicly bemoan their fate or even do horrible things to their children, there are many parents quietly loving and trying to truly help their autistic children in appropriate ways. I try to stay hopeful that most parents really do want to help their children.
And for all my struggles and the issues with which my parents struggled, I was fortunate that they worked to provide me the resources that actually helped me. They did so without any sort of diagnosis and without any real guidance other than instinct, observation, and trial and error. My family history is … complicated, and I spend more time writing about struggles I had growing up. That’s just the nature of the beast since some of those are things I’m still trying to work through or place in context now. But I have a great deal to be grateful for as well. Things could have easily been so much worse. In fact, as I study both the history and present day reality of autism, I’ve read many stories that are horrifyingly worse than anything I experienced.
I don’t think the girl’s mother was some sort of hero, either, or at least no more a hero than any parent struggling to do their best. I’ve a firm believer in what Sidney Poitier tells his father in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and have tried to apply that with my own children. Our children don’t owe us anything. We owe them everything we can do to care for them from the moment they are born. They didn’t ask to be born. We brought them into this world. But I did appreciate that the mother had information about her daughter the parents of those of us who are my age lacked. And I saw how she was using that information to benefit and help her daughter in very specific ways. No parent is ever perfect, but I found the two of them heart-warming during our brief encounter in an unusual and, I’m sure, stressful situation.
I try to notice and mark the small things in life. They often have more significance than we imagine.