No matter how carefully you plan your vacation to accommodate a family member on the autistic spectrum, long distance travel guarantees some unpredictability and stress—especially in airports. Perhaps Hawaii was a bit of a gamble, but my 25 year old daughter on the spectrum is generally a good sport when it comes to travelling, and she also has plenty of positive travel experiences under her belt. Samantha has no trouble waking up early, standing on lines, or packing and unpacking (with some supervision). She doesn’t mind the middle seat on airplanes, and she can tolerate delays and turbulence (as well or better than most neurotypical people). Plus Samantha loves lounging on a beach chair, swimming for hours AND going on tours and seeing new places, making Hawaii a great choice for our family vacation.
For years, we’ve been teaching Samantha how to behave appropriately at the airport. We have repeatedly explained to her that she MUST follow the instructions of all airport personnel— no matter what. In the spirit of Applied Behavioral Analysis, we’ve always reminded her that her choices are: 1) Be compliant when going through security, whether or not she likes or understands a request; she can always ask us to explain later. OR 2) She can interact with airport personnel by asking why, insisting that it’s not fair, and risk ending up forbidden to board the airplane with no vacation. I’m proud to report that Samantha has always made the right choice, managing to be a trooper even when, at age 10, her knitting needles were confiscated by airport security shortly after 9/11. Explaining that security personnel are just doing their job keeping passengers safe and EVERYONE has to follow the same rules helped tremendously. Samantha HATES the idea of being singled out and LOVES it when people think of her as sweet and cooperative. Thus she’s even willing to tolerate random body scans and pat downs because she’s watched Mom and Dad accept them.
After so many uneventful trips through airports, what could possibly go wrong in Hawaii? Hint: one green apple can truly upset …well, yes, the proverbial apple cart. The trouble began as we waited on a labyrinthine line to check our luggage for our flight from Maui to Oahu. Samantha became upset when she observed my email to her theater director, affectionately describing her as “our little diva.”
Yes. No. How do I explain? “I was trying to be humorous and affectionate…”
“But what does diva MEAN? Are you calling me something bad? It SOUNDS BAD,” she repeated.
After lengthy reassurances and definitions, my suddenly prickly daughter settled down as we moved to the security check for carry-ons. I didn’t bother to remind Samantha that she had no business reading my email. My main concern was boarding the airplane.
Just as I was sighing with relief, a security officer pointed to Samantha’s carry-on. “No fruits or vegetables allowed on the plane.” She removed Samantha’s green apple, detected on the security camera, and handed it to her. “You need to throw this away, or eat it right now. You can’t take it on the plane.”
“WHY won’t Daddy explain?” Samantha turned to me with growing frustration.
“Either walk back to the doorway and eat the apple or put it in the garbage.” The officer interjected matter-of-factly and gave us a sheet listing all prohibited produce.
“Great idea!” I replied. “Let’s walk away, like they suggested. “I’ll explain while you eat the apple.”
My daughter bit deeply into the apple and reluctantly followed me. Obviously, she’d forgotten my oft-repeated instructions to ALWAYS comply with airport security, no matter what. I desperately tried to stay calm but it wasn’t easy.
“Why can’t Daddy explain? He hates me. Only you love me.” Samantha‘s voice was rising rapidly.
Overhearing her, one of the security men at the carry-on conveyor watched us with growing concern. I thought about informing him that my daughter was on the autistic spectrum and not to worry, but I wasn’t absolutely convinced my revelation would suffice. I plowed on with Samantha as patiently and calmly as possible: “Nobody is allowed to bring fruit. The rule is for everyone. They are trying to prevent the spread of disease….”
By the time Samantha finished her apple, she had calmed down, but I was sweating. I had stopped worrying about the hurricane that was supposed to hit Hawaii. I was more worried about the human hurricane I had narrowly averted. I would never have guessed that relinquishing one green apple had the potential to drive Samantha into meltdown mode, when she had been so sweetly compliant and appropriate about removing her watch, laptop, phone and sneakers and stepping into a cubicle for a body scan. Of course, it’s easy for me forget Samantha’s attachment to green apples, because she’s been eating one every day since age seven. Perhaps her meltdown occurred because she’s on a restricted weight loss diet and her beloved apple is one of her only allowed sweets. Or maybe my daughter’s apple fixation is mysteriously linked to her middle name: Samantha Eve.