We spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale to celebrate my nieces third birthday. Luna, my sister, and I flew down on a Wednesday afternoon from Philadelphia International Airport.
Luna had taken 17 flights prior to this and everything went amazingly well on each one. But this flight did not start off the same as the others. She had her first ever public meltdown where I couldn’t remove her from the situation to help. It happened as we boarded the flight and took our seats. A meltdown in a tiny space with little room to regulate. It was hard. For her, for me, and I’m sure for everyone boarding the airplane.
Let me rewind and add a little more context:
The flight we took before this meltdown was a very tiny airplane from Toronto to Newark. We boarded first, sat in the second to last row, and the flight attendant immediately walked over to say hello with a friendly smile. She offered to let Luna see the back galley area while everyone else was boarding. They played a game where Luna ran through her legs and she let her turn a few knobs, emphasizing that it was safe to do so and to let her have fun before take off. This attendant was so patient and kind with Luna, recognizing her nonverbal cues, and clearly enjoying the moment. We then sat down and took off for the hour and a half flight back to the states. At first Luna wanted to go back and play again, but she only had a few minutes of frustrated missed communications before she stopped asking to go back and settled on her tablet.
So back to the meltdown– when we boarded our flight from Philly to Florida,
I think she both remembered and associated flying with that prior experience.
She didn’t understand that we could not go back and do that again, and that this is not something that can happen every time we fly. It was such a hard communication barrier between the both of us.
She kicked and screamed and thrashed around in my arms. I’ve never seen her so upset. People walked by us and I could only imagine their thoughts as they boarded with a screaming toddler. Luna didn't want milk or chocolate or her iPad. She just kept trying to escape and run to the back. And it just wasn't safe or realistic to even try to let her see the back before we took off. I had to give a firm no.
(I think) her frustration stemmed from trying to tell me what she wanted and it’s not that she was upset that she wasn’t getting her way, she was upset that I didn’t seem to be understanding her. And I was limiting her way of communication by showing me where she wanted to go. Something that always works for us… in safe spaces.
It took about 25 minutes for her to finally calm down. She was clearly so vulnerable and exhausted after. This meltdown wasn’t something she wanted. It wasn’t something that she could control. It wasn’t something that I could help her regulate even when I tried to give her squeezes, flip her upside down, bounce her, and distract her.
Luna is a toddler. And Luna also has autism. Her brain is wired in a way that is different from mine. She processes information and sensory aspects of life differently than me. She processes language differently than me. She identifies experiences and creates her own routine out of them. Understanding Luna is something that I’ve learned and will continuously learn as she grows up herself. All I can do is try my hardest to help her regulate, communicate, and process the world around her. I don’t always have the right words to say or the best answers but I do know that taking her meltdowns with grace, staying patient, and remaining calm has helped us both.
Our flight home from Florida was just like the 17 flights prior to the meltdown on flight number 18. She was happy, content, and relaxing the whole way home.
Flight number 20 is our first red eye long one and I think it will go just fine.
I share this story because I want you to know that not all travel days are easy. I want you to know that even with the strongest bond between my daughter and me, we still struggle to communicate in many aspects. I want you to know that you are not alone.