Travel and Autism

Gabriel turned 13 years old a couple of weeks ago, and we took him and his brothers on a “bucket list trip” to Cairo, Egypt to see the Pyramids and Sphinx – to mark his official entrance into manhood!

This trip necessitated a very short, two-hour flight between Jeddah & Cairo – and three days away from home.

And, our sweet little Noah was terrified.

In spite of our international lifestyle, including Noah being born in Abu Dhabi and our literally flying all over the world with him from birth on, Noah has been nervous on airplanes as early as he was old enough to know what was going on.

And truth be told, I share this fear.

I make it a point to sit next to Noah during our flights, because I know that during every take off, any turbulence, and every landing, his hand will be squeezing the fire out of mine, and his head will be firmly buried in my chest, with my arm tightly fastened securely around his body.

And I have to admit, this comforts me. Not only in the “I’m being the best Mommy EVER! sense,” but, in the fact that I need this physical comfort too.

And, personal note here: I’m mentally working on this fear of flying issue; it’s not fun and I want to be over it… But in the meantime, valium and wine (not necessarily in that order..) help tremendously.  😉

But back to Noah: what also hits him hard is the fact that he is an UBER picky eater, and he shuts down on flights. Won’t eat, won’t drink, etc.

He’s gotten better though; in past years, on 15-30 hour trans-Atlantic marathons (i.e. Tampa-Atlanta-Dubai-Jeddah), after we finally reached Jeddah, Noah was so sick and dehydrated that we had to take him to the ER and get him on a saline drip for a few hours.

PS – We don’t do this anymore; we definitely learned our lesson. Any time we take massive trips, we break them up and take daylong layovers to give the boys (and us) time to recoup.

Anyways, fear of flying is certainly not always synonymous with Autism, but I’ve no doubt his Autism contributes to his anxiety – along with the plane ride itself, the lack of familiar food, and especially the bigger, overall concept of the unknown.

Travelling, by definition, is an all-encompassing series of NEW experiences, and Autism doesn’t sit well with “NEW.”

Consequently, as Noah has gotten older, he has become a serious homebody.

Case in point: We arrived in Cairo, and the very next morning, he started crying and saying, “I want to go home.”

**BTW, this is new for us; Gabriel is perfectly fine on planes, loves going to new places, and when we’re gone, NEVER asks to come home…**

It’s also new in the fact that this is the first time Noah has displayed this heightened level of anxiety – probably because he is now old enough to know and understand what is coming; he knows if we say, “Noah, we’re leaving on an airplane in three days,” he comprehends it, internalizes it, and then obsesses on it.

So in the week leading up to the trip, Noah started vomiting in the mornings. Not because he was “ill” with a virus or infection, but because of anxiety.

And he vomited multiple times the morning of the flight, on the flight, and even the morning we went to the pyramids. We were literally standing at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and I had Daniel, Gabriel and our kind tour guide making a human shield around us while Noah threw up into a plastic bag I was holding.

But then once he got it out of his system, he was fine.  We rode camels about 30 minutes afterwards, and a camel ride is NOT a smooth ride – were all thrown around, shaken up, etc. – and he was stellar.

He is such a little rockstar.  🙂

He even posed for this pic right after the finishing the camel ride, and while he was posing, said in the cutest voice, “I am STRONG!”

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Indeed you are, my little love.

So it’s the mornings, the uncertainty of what’s coming next, and the obsessive desire to be back in familiar surroundings.

We still saw what we wanted to see, but cut the morning short – and once we got back to the hotel and he had his iPad, he was fine. Except, still asking every hour or so, “Mommy, can we go home?”

What was very interesting was the night before we left, he actually became excited for the airplane.

Noah: “Mommy! Tomorrow, sleep, wake up, go to airplane, and go HOME!!!!” with a big, beautiful smile.

Me: “Yes, baby, tomorrow we go home.”

Noah: “Oh, THANK YOU MOMMY, thank you so much!!” followed by a kiss for Mommy, which Mommy always loves, of course.

What Mommy does NOT love is the fact that in one month, we are leaving again on another short trip (Oh wait, definitely, Mommy loves that fact! 🙂 but it’s the attached fact that Mommy doesn’t love – that Noah is probably going to go through this again, and this time it will be worse (i.e. 7-day, spring break trip to Greece and Cyprus: more flights, longer flights, and longer overall duration of trip).

However, this is where I am grateful for my Special Education training, as I will be more prepared this time with a picture-filled social story, detailing every step of the trip for Noah so that he knows, within reason, exactly what is coming:

And, thank God Noah has a hands-down, aMAZing Learning Support team who is going to work with us on getting him ready.  Collectively, we will be:

  • teaching him breathing / relaxation strategies
  • soliciting help from some of his little friends to make him videos of encouragement that he can watch while he’s away
  • tasking him with taking pictures and making a little picture book (or video blog, not sure which yet) to show his friends when we get back
  • role playing going on a trip with him; packing a bag, going to the airport, taking pictures of new sights, etc. to try and get him used to the idea of seeing new things, while still feeling safe and secure in a familiar environment
  • any other ideas are welcomed…!

And, because he pretty much refuses to eat anything but very familiar foods, Daniel and I are going to prepare and take a massive “familiar food” care package with us.

So…… This is the plan.  No idea if it will work, but I’m hopeful.  If you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail, right?

We will give it our best go to try and help him decrease his anxiety, while trying to heighten his enjoyment of the trip, and hopefully expanding his confidence if/when he overcomes this fear.

I just deeply hope that in time, same as with Gabriel, Noah will learn to look forward to and appreciate new experiences: including heading out there into the unknown to see the world.

One last thought.

(Classic soapbox moment ahead….)

There may be people reading this who don’t value travel the way Daniel and I do.  You may believe that we should move home to the US and cater to Noah’s wishes because of his Autism.

With all due respect, we completely disagree.

First of all, we can’t shelter Noah from change (even in the US), and it would be highly unhealthy to even attempt to do so.

Second, Noah is very stable here in Jeddah; we’ve been here six years, with no immediate plans to leave, and he has (I believe I mentioned this before) an absolutely amazing (over the top, freaking AMAZING) team of Learning Support professionals who love him as their own and take care of him at school. Personalized care I’m certain we would never get in the states.

Third, Daniel and I live where we do and the way we do because we believe there is too much beauty and diversity in the world to not go out and experience it to the greatest extent possible.

And we want our boys to see this world.  We want to give them the world.

We ask others to open their minds and include our boys in their lives, in spite of their disabilities, but it’s equally important for our boys to have open minds and be open to others’ differences, cultures, etc.

And for us, this ex-pat lifestyle is the most authentic way to show them how different, and beautiful, we all are.

Noah knows he’s loved.  No question there.  And if we truly believed we were hurting him or his brothers, we would adopt a different lifestyle.

But in our heart of hearts, as parents, we believe he will be just fine.  Even more than fine, hopefully.

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