In May 2017, I had to take an emergency trip to the US because I had bereavement in my family. I figured since I was going to have to suffer the public and social interactions, I may as well use this as a learning opportunity. I thought this trip would give me many new insights, not only into how airports might treat me in the UK but also in the US. I wanted to see how the various airports dealt with Autism and their thousands of disabled travellers as well. The difference for me was night and day and both hilarious as well as saddening.
When I booked my ticket online, by the way I purchased it within 15 hours of my need to travel; I booked it with special assistance with British Airways, through Heathrow Airport. Travelling alone was quite a daunting task for me. At 40, I should realise I am an adult and “should” be able to do to “adult” things like travel alone without too much issue, but I felt incredibly vulnerable. I wasn’t just travelling alone, but I knew my anxieties would be on high alert. I had no children with to keep me focused on something outside myself and no one who would be there to help me take in information or help me know what to do. I was aware I would be in various incredibly loud, highly confusing and multisensory intense environments, but it truly didn’t hit me until the second I step off the curb without my sons or husband to focus on. I felt like a little girl being left all alone in the big bad world without a soul to help me.
As I walked into the Airport, I saw an assistance sign and asked for help and was pointed to the check in desk. Standing in the queue waiting, I could feel my stimming increasing as I spun my spinner ring to try to calm myself as I stood, slightly rocking myself quietly next to two very highly perfumed ladies. Once I reached the check in desk and explained to the British Airways check in staff my destination and needs, she was ever so friendly and helpful. She asked if I needed a wheelchair, which at first I thought odd, but simply replied, “No thank you, I can walk, I have Autism and I just need someone with me to help slowly explain what I need to do, that I do not like people touching me, so if people could please warn me before they do that, I would be grateful.” She typed a few things then finished my check in. She then explained to me, at what felt like lightning speed, where the special assistance area was upstairs and that they would help me from then on. She gave me about 6 different amounts of information and instructions so I had to ask her to slow down and repeat the information much slower. She apologised with a smile and then gave me my instructions again. I repeated them back to her to ensure I had processed them correctly only to be told I missed some bits. Well of course I would, given the environment I was in and my high anxiety. Luckily after a third explanation, I managed to remember the important bits and where to get further help.
Once I arrived at the special assistance area, I had several women come to ask me to have a seat, remove from my bag any liquid items and place them into a smaller clear bag they gave me. As I sat there, I could see that to the side of a waiting area were several wheelchairs ready and waiting to help others but none were for me. One lady was ever so kind and was asking me my specific needs. Now, I am aware that Autism training is more prevalent at Heathrow airport so was interested in seeing what they knew. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice anything specific, only that she was happy to tell me the answers to my questions like, “What happens now? Where do I go from here? How will security work? Do I have to take my shoes off? Will people be touching me? Where do I go on the other side?” She answered all of my questions and told me that staff would take several of “us” both those in wheelchairs and I walking beside them, through security but in a faster way. She also said there is a specific area that we could wait for our flights that was slightly quieter for their special assistance “clients”.
Standing there waiting to go through security was interesting, among all the hustle and bustle were containers to put my “things” in to be scanned. It was all rather confusing. I didn’t see any signs for what I was meant to do and as the assistants were helping the other clients who were in wheelchairs, I just stood there unsure. I think a specific sign with steps for what they want travellers to do at security might be helpful, not just for me but other travellers, because I could see I was not the only one standing there confused. What I was left with however, was security staff just barking orders at everyone while I had the assistant now looking at me like I was meant to automatically know what to do. I grabbed my tub and placed all my items inside, removing my tablet for inspection. I was then sent through a metal scanner and boom, it was done. I collected my things from the other side and waited for my assistant. There I was thinking they were going to physically handle me but they didn’t and relief washed over me.
After going through the security area, we were then whisked to a larger room hidden behind the duty-free shopping area. Once I was there, we were checked in with another assistant at a desk who simply looked harassed and not quite in love with her job. I sat down and tried to relax because I knew I had 3 more hours to wait until my flight would leave and I had a chance to try to think about all things that lay ahead and why was traveling to begin with.
Perhaps this is just me, but I do like to be considerate to people when I am in a public place. I keep to myself, I keep my things close to me, I use headphones so I don’t disturb others and I don’t sleep because I snore like a motorbike and don’t fancy being on a Youtube fail video. However, I was made abundantly aware that not everyone thinks this way. Whilst waiting in the “quiet” room the large screen telly was at a fairly moderate volume and showing what I call an “old people” shows. So I didn’t pay any attention and just tried my best to get lost in my own thoughts, only to have my ears loudly and rudely assaulted by some woman’s phone as she watched a video of some kind. I get that sometimes people accidently click on a video and once they realise it is loud turn it off or turn the sound off etc, but this woman didn’t. I tried to forgive this issue the first two times it happened but by the third time I wasn’t in right frame of mind to just let it go anymore. Next thing you know I turned around and just said, “Excuse me could you please turn that down we are in a public place?” The woman promptly turned it off and put the phone away. Well that worked. I am not proud of myself for not just dropping it, but I was not in any mind space to allow other people’s inconsiderate tenancies further increase an already highly overstimulated sensory levels. Not just for myself but I could also see it was annoying others.
Shortly thereafter I realised I suddenly needed the loo quite quickly. This can happen to me when I am hyper focused on other things or over stimulated as my senses are over taken and my physical needs often get lost in the simulation and distractions around me. I asked the desk clerk where the loo was and she told me it was a far walk but that she would call for a wheelchair. I told her I was fine and didn’t need one just the loo and fast. She then insisted I should wait for wheelchair assistance. I stood there about 30 seconds and realised I was going to need to “Usain Bolt” it to the loo or risk not making it in time. In the end, I just walked out and did what I needed to do, still at the protest of staff. I mean come on people, I told you I am physically capable of walking, what was the big deal in letting me go on my own? It would have been a much larger mess had I stayed and believe me the desk clerk wouldn’t have liked her job any better had I stayed.
Once it was time for boarding we were all buggied off to our gate. I had to ask for a seat by myself in the buggy so that I was not touching anyone else and they happily obliged. At the gate we were helped and put into a short queue to be checked again by airline staff. However as I was waiting, I had a woman come up behind me and touch my shoulder. I jumped a mile high, like a scared cat nail clamping onto the ceiling like you see in cartoons. Everyone around me was laughing as I not only jumped out of my skin but also made a noise because she scared me. She touched me again as she apologised and I just did what I normally do and smile, but inside I was left feeling even more anxious and with her touch on my body, which really bothered me. Having gone through the now penultimate check in, we were sat in specific seating awaiting our boarding. The check in staff seemed to understand why those in the wheelchairs needed to board first, but looked at me like I had no reason to be let on in the same group. I get it on some levels. People look at me, listen to me speak and see and hear nothing “wrong” with me. It is very much the, “You don’t look Autistic” Syndrome that a lot of the public have when it comes to many Adult Autistics. This doesn’t mean I have no need for help or assistance, it just means they have ignorance of my issues and therefore need educating. At our boarding time, off I went ready for my flight with the other special assistance “clients”. The big bonus for me was that the flight was half full. There was no one sitting directly next to, in front, or diagonally in front of me. So I had plenty of room to be comfortable without touching anyone. Who could want more right? However, the little kicker was that the woman who had touched me during check in was one of the stewardesses from my flight. I did laugh inside once I realised and explained to her that I have Asperger’s and that I didn’t like people touching me which was the reason why I had jumped. She apologised as she thought I was just daydreaming and said she would inform the other staff members so they would be aware during the flight. To be honest, I needed very little during the flight, however did notice that a specific staff member seemed to take a dislike to me. Why this would be I am not quite sure, however, she also touched me from behind without me seeing her coming and I jumped out of my skin, yet again. What I don’t think people realise is that I get an intense physical sensation from people touching me. It is like an electrical shock and at times it can be like someone putting slime on me or at other times like being hit with a hammer. While people may think it is an overreaction, it is a reaction, I would think, anyone would have if they felt those things when people touched them. Once this second stewardess touched me and I jumped again a mile high she just started at me, quite intensely, for about 1 minute and in what felt like an intimidating way. It was uncomfortable to see her looking at me for so long and I felt compelled to say, you touched me and that is why I jumped. There was no reaction and she just continued to give me almost an evil eye and say nothing. From then on the rest of the flight every time she passed me, she stared at me. It was rather uncomfortable and towards the end of my first 9 hour flight, began to aggravate me. I just figured once I was off the flight I wouldn’t have to see her ever again so I said to myself, just suck it up buttercup and move on. That flight couldn’t end fast enough. However what was waiting on the other end of my flight would leave me completely astonished.
On arrival in Dallas, I felt a sense of relief. “Finally here, just one more short flight and I am there,” I thought to myself. Sadly however, the confusion and anxiety increased tenfold once I walked off the plane. I spoke to an airport worker on the jet bridge to ask where to go for special assistance, then she asked my name, checked her list and pointed me to the plethora of lined up wheelchairs and attendants along the side of theair bridge. I explained to her that I was perfectly able to walk, that I have Autism and I am not physically disabled and just needed help with processing the information. I, again, explained too many instructions and distractions make it difficult for me to do what is required in the correct order. I mentioned that I dislike people touching me and need a warning before anyone did. I just needed someone to walk me through it all step by step so that I could get to my next gate and be less overwhelmed as I would know someone with me knows the steps. Now, I wasn’t in a major hurry to wait as I had a 4 hour layover but, I wanted to get into a quieter area as soon as possible as I was already seeing, what I call yellow smoke, around the peripherals of my vision which usually tells me I am in an area that is too loud and over stimulating. The head attendant at the gate just again pointed me to the wheelchairs and said, “I could call someone for you without a wheelchair but that could take 30 minutes or so, but if you just get into the wheelchair they can zip you through things pretty quickly and get you to you next gate after immigration and collect your bags.” In my head I thought, “Really people? I am not physically disabled; I have a cognitive impairment, why not ask clients if they need a wheel chair in the first place?” The lady just pointed once more to the wheelchairs, so I felt I had no real choice and sat down. I could feel the embarrassment, not because I was worried people would think I needed a wheelchair and was disabled, but because I saw the same people who were sat near me on the plane who I know watched me standing and walking around the plane, being pushed by some skinny wafer of a man and they all knew I could walk. As the other passengers walked passed me with smiles on their faces I just shook my head and chuckled to myself. Once at the top of the air bridge in the gaggle of wheelchairs waiting for the lift, that only takes two at a time to the next floor, I stood up. I said to the attendants there, “Listen I just need help going through all this stuff and don’t need a wheelchair, I have been sat on a plane for 9 hours and WANT to actually walk. I’ve been deprived of moving for hours and still have another flight. Can I not just go through with some of you and not be sat in a wheelchair?” Well, you’d ‘ave thought I just told them that birds can make milk by the looks on their faces. There were plenty of “How dare you even suggest not using a wheelchair?” looks on their faces. All these male attendants looked at each other as though I asked the million dollar question and they seemed unsure if it was even allowed. But after a few minutes one attendant braved to answer and said for me to come along with him and his wheel chaired lady and her partner. I was relieved but also slightly worried as he kept asking why I even needed help at all. I can only assume they have no Autism training at this particular airport. To top it off his manners and customer services skills were lacking to a great degree, but I, again, felt I had no real choice. I thought to myself, at least we will be able to go through a faster queue and get through in a shorter time, but this was only partly true.
Once we arrived at immigration after a 10 minute walk/wheelchair push, at Dallas Airport, we were sent to a machine to deal with our passports. I have dual nationality for both the US and Great Britain, but am acutely aware that when I travel to the US I must enter with my US passport. As I had to rush to London 6 hours before my flight to obtain an emergency passport, so mine was brand spanking new and less than 15 hours old, with not a shiny page in sight, I figured there would be trouble. The attendant processed the wheelchair lady and her husband first, to use them as an example to show me what I needed to do to process myself. However, he was tapping the buttons so fast and I didn’t process a single thing apart from placing my passport on the machine. I told him, “Hey you went too fast; in fact you pushed the buttons for this gentleman and answered the questions for him. I doubt he was even able to read and take them all in either.” The gentleman said he actually knew what it said because he filled in the paper form on the plane but that he agreed the guy had gone too fast. So slightly harassed the attendant said to me, “Give me your passport,” to which I said, “You mean please…” He looked ever so slightly more annoyed and said “Yes, please.” I gave him my passport but it wouldn’t scan. He tried to scan it a further 4 more times before he said we needed to go to a “person” to processes my passport. Since the lady in the wheelchair hadn’t had her passport scan either, we all moved to an actual processing line. This is when the attendant, I can only assume out of pure boredom, ask me why I needed help again, because “apparently” I was pretty and looked “normal”, he didn’t understand. Now, when the dreaded “you look normal” comes out of someone’s mouth, I always realise I don’t stand much of a chance of convincing them of anything nor do I feel I need to justify my needs, but just gave him a very brief explanation, why I needed assistance. I also told him not to make assumptions, as there are many people out there are various ‘invisible’ disabilities and to use more manners because they cost nothing, of course. In the end he was very friendly and nice, just in a rush I am sure. He tried to do the small talk, which I hate with a passion, but had to try to give the guy a break as he was at least trying to help me and not forcing me into a wheelchair I didn’t need or want. So English Premier League football was the topic of discussion, as we hurriedly tried to kill time waiting for processing.
Finally, my time came for processing through immigration and it was fairly straightforward, but the immigration officer was suspicious of my passport and my “British” accent. Side note: I have a very odd accent, I am American and to the British I sound American, however as I have lived in England for over 20 years I have a British twang, as I like to call it, and to Americans I sound very British. So, most people get confused. To top it off, I was born in Germany so I think the immigration officer was a little confused. To add to his confusion was this brand new passport which looked quite different but I assume he should have seen an American passport made in London before. There were plenty of people at the US Embassy in London and Dallas is a major US air traffic hub so I am sure he would have seen one previous to my arrival. I then explained that I had to get an emergency passport and that I had my previously expired US passport with me along with my UK passport. He just looked at me which was rather uncomfortable, might I add, but then stamped it and waved me through. What a sigh of relief I gave in my head and just walked to the end of the passageway to wait for the attendant and the other couple so we could get our things.
Getting my bag and sending it back through for my connecting flight was super easy and if I am honest, a waste of time but I get it has to be done. This too was quite disorganised and it felt a bit like I was just handing my bag over to some stranger who was standing there being kind whilst also possibly bored and just chucking the bags back onto a conveyor belt, but it could have been a lorry ready for selling our bags on the black market, how was I to know?
Next, I was off through to airside security. Getting shouted at by a TSA officer with bad attitude, who hates repeating himself all day is not what I call fun. This one was however, particularly abrupt and demanding. He also made an inappropriate joke when a few young ladies came through the queue. I could see from the look on the assistance face that was with me, he was not keen on this officer. I just had to try not to draw attention to myself as I tried to cover my ears from the officer’s shouting and all the noise around me. Once it was my turn to have my items checked my assistant said, “Give me your bag,” to which I replied, “please…” with a smirk on my face. The assistant laughed a little a smiled then said, “Yes, please give me your bag…and your shoes and anything else.” I thought maybe I was getting a little bit of victory in the manners department with this guy, but if nothing else, he wouldn’t forget me in a hurry. I was then sent through a full body scanner. It was all very matter of fact from staff and again slight annoyance. I just think, you know, if you don’t like dealing with the public, don’t do that job. Perhaps it is my logical brain or maybe I am just clever like that, but clearly the staff didn’t feel that way. Once through the scanner a female officer was going to need to pat me down. I explained my issues and she was very sweet. She showed me a couple of screens which indicated where she was going to pat me down and she told me just before she did it. I was quite impressed, she even straightened the bottom of my jeans which was a nice little touch, I think. Perhaps the only light in that very dull task for me. Finally at the end I had my things and was made to wait for the buggy to come and get me and take me to my connecting flight which was a 25 minute buggy ride or nearly 50 minutes walking. By this point I was super exhausted. I hadn’t slept in over 40 hours, I hadn’t eaten in 2 days and I was over stimulated and emotional. I just wanted to get to my gate and find a nice quiet area to try to calm myself and find my safe mind space.
When my buggy arrived the gentleman couldn’t speak much English but he knew where I needed to go as I showed him my boarding card. He drove me quite fast which gave off a nice cool breeze and was as closest thing to fresh air that I was gonna get locked in an airport. The first drive lasted about 10 minutes; he dropped me off and pointed me to a lift/elevator. I took this lift up and was greeted by another man with a new buggy waiting to take me on further. The whole buggy/lift scenario continued a further 3 times. At one point I felt like they were driving me to my destination, it all took so long but I finally got there. The last man just dumped me off and turned around and left.
I was finally at my gate, I thought. Now I may have a chance to relax a little and calm down. I am not sure it is was a combination of stress, my emotional state, the overstimulation, the lack of food, sleep and even water but my body was starting to worry me. I found a nice quiet place to try to relax, which was difficult given the ridiculously overly stimulated environment of food and people scents, moving advertising boards, constant conversations, repeated loud speaker announcements for missing passengers whose seats were “ going to be given away” if they didn’t respond. Then you have the hustle and bustle of airport workers, artificial lighting and telly noise to try to contend with. I was determined to give it a whirl anyway because well…I had no real choice. As I sat looking out of the large windows at the planes waiting at their gates I started to feel dizzy. I got panicky and then started to cry. I was worried about being where I was, alone, no one knew my issues and I thought if I collapse on the floor no one will know why or who I am. I couldn’t call my mother, who I was on the way to meet me because I had no internet on my UK phone and as people have cellphones in the US there were no payphones. I couldn’t call anyone. I managed to see an airport worker seated at the end of the same row of seats I was on and asked him how I could call for assistance. He just said, quite abruptly, “Give me your ticket.” I tried to explain to him I was feeling unwell and my issue but he just snatched my ticket and walked off to a desk a couple of minutes’ walk away. I really didn’t know what to do and just sat there stunned and dizzy, unsure of what to do. Then over the speaker system heard him call for assistance. He too, like everyone else there, looked rather annoyed. Perhaps he was on a break, I just wanted to know how to get help and I wasn’t trying to make things an issue. Whilst waiting for “assistance” I watched this male airport worker talking to two other female co- workers and they were all giggling. It made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Now I am not saying they were talking about me, but it did make me wonder. Then, I realised they were flirting and much like teenagers trying to show off, the male and one of the female co-workers were using the load speaker to make comments about each other which I thought was unprofessional and inappropriate. The male airport worker then speaks to a newly acquired special assistant pushing a wheelchair and hands her my boarding card and she comes towards me. I just thought here we go again ANOTHER wheel chair, but then thought; maybe I will need it if I am too dizzy to walk the 90 second walk to my gate, which was highly unlikely but maybe. The woman asked me what I needed and I tried to explain myself yet again, but this time I could tell the words were all coming out a bit wrong. I wasn’t even clear to myself. In the end I managed to say I was feeling ill and was worried I might collapse, that I was Autistic and not too sure what I should do. I could see the word Autistic just go right over her head and she just looked at me, also unsure what to suggest. She said, “Well, let me get you to your gate, just have a seat.” I told her I wasn’t as dizzy that I could walk and knew the gate was just down the way. So she followed me. Not fifteen seconds later and now at my gate, the assistant just stood there and asked me what I wanted. I said I just wanted a quiet place, I perhaps just needed to rest but wanted someone to be aware of my current condition should I have any further episodes. I mean it could have been a panic attack I have no idea. So the woman then tells me to sit in a noisy area. Which I said was too noisy. Then she placed the wheelchair right in front of the desk at my gate where a stewardess/flight attendant was on the computers. She told the woman she was leaving me there and I was unwell and was promptly greeted with a, “I am not working on this gate and leaving in a minute.” The assistant said to me to just sit in the seat and then she walked off. I sat in the wheelchair for about 10 seconds thinking to myself…did that really just happen? So I got up and walked back to the original area I was in and sat near a couple of people who looked decent enough as a ” just in case” couple. They were human and not likely to really need to interact with me, so they’ll do, right? As it happened they were also on the same flight, I overheard and just tried to sit myself in a nice quiet corner where the lighting had gone out so it was darker and I could try to prepare myself for the epic social task to come in a few hours.
After 2 more hours I moved to the gate and I waited near the throng of people waiting to board the flight. I had no one with me and I had to wait until my “group” was called to board the plane. I was not overly excited as it meant lots of close contact with loads of various smelling strangers and multiple accidental touching from strangers, but again, what choice did I have? Luckily for me the flight was all of 45 minutes and like magic I was at my final destination.
As I arrived near midnight there were very few people in the actual airport. It was, however, only once I arrived that I realised I couldn’t call my mother because I had no US sim and not roaming. There also were no payphones outside and I was so exhausted I couldn’t think of how to get a hold of her. To top it all off I told my mother I was on a British Airways Flight, however all my flights were actually managed by American Airlines. This meant she was at the wrong terminal to collect me. To make matters worse, since I hadn’t been in much contact with my mother had no idea what her current car looked like. It was slightly needle in the hay stack scenario. I was just hoping she was smart enough to check the other terminal to look for me. Once she arrived I could feel my panic reduce, but my anxiety still remained as I hadn’t seen her in over eight years. I may have arrived at my destination, but my journey was long from over.
The trip back home to England was fairly similar to the trip going to the US. A lot of lack of understanding, followed by apathy, a need to “stick to procedures”, barked demands and wheelchair pushing. The only real bonus was at least this time I boarded all the return flights first, which meant I knew where my hand luggage would be. It was a small victory for me but not a big step for those with Autism like me. It made me worry for those of us in our special club and not able to speak up for themselves or who struggle even more than I do. On the way back home to England I did mention my issues at the first airport and was promptly greeted with my old friend, the wheelchair. I was told that is how they “assist” and that it was quicker for me to use the chair. As it was o’dark thirty at the airport for my first flight I figured I would just go with it and didn’t fight another losing battle, as they would never listen to me anyway. I was wheeled through security on my way to my first of two flights back home. Once in Chicago, I had another 6 hour wait until my next flight and just kept my headphones on whilst messaging back and forth with Adam as the airport had wifi; and would you believe it, payphones too. He kept me sane and focused after a very emotional personal journey. You can read about my first adult funeral experience and how things went (HERE). A crowded airport is a lot to take in, even for those less sensitive than myself. This trip doesn’t inspire me to take our boys abroad, not that I think The Bear could handle such a journey, without our being diverted to some other country because he doesn’t like the smell of the airplane food and has a meltdown. I really never felt like I was home until I landed back at Heathrow. I felt I had had a major experience, emotional journey and learned a lot about what things may help me and my family to travel in the future and possibly created a new found dislike of wheelchairs to boot.