Have you ever tried flying with a toddler? The idea of doing it brings panic to most parents. Now imagine navigating this already difficult and stressful situation with a child who has hurdles at every stop. That is what I recently faced with my three year old son who has SPD. My one advantage in this is that I have flown a lot. So I developed a plan to navigate this situation. I knew where our biggest issues would be and what the most likely meltdowns would be about.
Except that there’s no way to predict what will set him off in new places. My son has huge issues with transitions, so big changes mean new conflicts. I decided to make sure I had our trusty iPad, his pillow and blanket and a few toys for the actual flight. This means less transition and it’s also a good distraction from the surroundings and any possible sensory issues. I also knew I’d need a stroller to get him through the airport. I put on his crocs in case they made him take his shoes off so it’d be quick and easy. I brought his favorite foods and drinks; anything to make it easier on us.
What I forgot about was having to get the stroller onto the belt for the security check while hanging on to him. I didn’t think about how fast they move you through. It was a struggle. They of course made us take off our shoes and I prayed he wouldn’t meltdown. His feet are one of his most sensitive tactile areas and removing his shoes used to cause severe meltdowns of drastic proportions. Luckily I got them off and was able to keep him calm while his shoes disappeared down the belt. He was clearly upset and thus began Super Clingy Boy.
This is what my son becomes when he doesn’t meltdown, but is clearly having a sensory response he can’t ignore. He grabs on to my hand like his life depends on it and I know what is coming next. “Up mommy, up,” he almost whispers it because he’s so nervous. The crowd is getting to him now that he’s out of the security and confinement of his stroller. I pick him up without any thought and start to go through the rest of security.
The TSA agent on my side of the metal detector smiles sympathetically at me. I notice she’s staring at his paci. I wanted to stop all pacifier use at three, but the flight was only a week after his birthday and this process would be much harder without his trusty paci. It’s not just comfort for him. It fills a sensory seeking need that helps decrease his hyperactivity and distractibility and increases his concentration. I wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting this trip without it. She asks how old he is, partly because of the pacifier and partly because he is the size of a five year old. When I say three she comments the same as everyone does, no one believes his age based on his size.
I just barely notice any of it because this happens at least once a day. I ask if I can go through with him the way he is and she nods. As we go through the detector the agent on the other side says nothing. After we start to pass her and grab our stuff she tells me, “No, no. He is way too big for you to do that. He has to walk through.” At this point I’m freaked because setting him down is a huge risk. I tell her he’s probably not going to walk on his own. I can tell the people behind us are getting irritated. It’s at times like these when I wish people knew what SPD was, and what it meant. This is where people with more known disabilities or disorders have an advantage. None of this matters at the moment because I know I have to keep calm or he will freak out.
I set him down and tap his nose so he knows to keep eye contact with me while I talk. I can’t break his gaze or he won’t hear me in someplace like this. I tell him I’m gonna walk through first and he’s gonna follow, but I’ll be with him the whole time. I walk in backwards secretly hoping he freaks out to teach the agent a lesson, but I don’t have time for it either. I smile and talk to him and he walks through with little duress. For anyone else this was merely an annoyance. It would have been tallied on the not so great experiences and then they would’ve moved on. It was a very stressful three minutes, such a brief moment to cause one so much stress. But it was also a huge success. My son made it through multiple stressors where only one could’ve made this a terrible experience. He successfully pushed through the hurdles and made it across the finish line. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a long way from where I was just a few months ago.
I would’ve never dreamed of trying this last year. Just getting out of the house was an extreme challenge. Today however, my son and I can manage even the most stressful situations for him. We had a few more bumps when the plane was delayed taking off and when he had to sit for the landing. None were nearly as bad as going through security though. It was even easier on the flight coming home, even security was easier. He had gone through it once, so he was more prepared for all it. I know we have struggles, and I know we have so much to learn together, but I also know anything is possible. Nothing is off limits. I look forward to all of the places he and I will go. I look forward to watching my son take flight and soar.