Flying with Emma

Emma is a joy to travel with.  Unlike most children, she sits quietly in her seat and is content to listen to music, look out the window, watch a video or look at books.  But there are certain misunderstandings, which inevitably arise when traveling with Emma as well.

Yesterday as we boarded the airplane leaving New York City to Denver, a nice woman behind us asked if Emma was 9.  I told her she was and she replied that her daughter was 9 too and she understood how hard it could be to travel with a nine-year old.  I said, “Oh, is your daughter autistic?”

The woman looked at me in surprise and said, “No.  She’s nine.”

It was one of those peculiar conversations where you realize you’ve misunderstood the intent of the other person.  I immediately thought, because Emma kept getting out of the line leading to the aircraft, that she knew Emma was autistic.  But it turns out she had no idea and was simply commiserating with someone who also had a nine-year old child and was flying with her.  My first impulse was to say, “Oh no.  Emma is great to travel with.  She’s not like that at all!”  But I decided it was best to keep walking and find our seats.

Later during the flight when Emma needed to go to the bathroom, the flight attendant said, “Poor thing, she’s still asleep,”  as Emma kept trying to push open the door to the bathroom which was occupied, despite my repeated attempts to stop her.  Again I just smiled.

Later on the flight from Denver to Aspen, (we were one of the lucky few who actually made it into Aspen yesterday!) the flight attendant leaned over to Emma and said, “Do you have your seat belt on?”

“Umhmm,” Emma said, curled up on the seat by the window.

“Really?” he said.  Where?  Do you have it around your chest, your knees?  I don’t see a seat belt.”

Emma just smiled at him and nodded her head.

“Emmy, put your seat belt on,” I interjected as I could hear the growing irritation in the harried flight attendant’s voice.  She immediately did so.

“Oh!  So you weren’t telling me the truth, were you?” the flight attendant said.

I put my hand gently on his elbow and said, “She’s autistic and didn’t understand you.”

“Oh dear.  I’m so sorry,” he replied before quickly moving along the aisle.

And so it goes.  This sort of thing happens constantly with Emma.  People assume she’s fine, she looks fine after all, and respond accordingly.  There’s always a moment when either I say something or they begin to realize they are dealing with someone who is a bit different than what they thought.  It’s a surreal moment, when the other person is caught off guard, before they’ve had time to make an adjustment.  Usually people are incredibly kind, very occasionally we meet someone who isn’t.   I don’t have any one method of responding.  Often I say nothing.  I mean what’s the point really?

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