Time for another confession.
When I’m traveling with Martin, I pre-board airplanes.
It is absolutely and wholly unnecessary for me and Martin to pre-board. Martin is fine waiting in a slow procession down the aisle. He settles quickly, and once handed an iPad and earphones, utters hardly a peep in flight. Although he used to get agitated by sitting next to other folks, and sometimes delay the boarding process while I negotiated to get him comfortable, that anxiety has more or less passed. We do not need to pre-board.
Nevertheless, we do. I tell the gate agent, “Would it be okay if we pre-board? My son has autism, and it’s easier if we enter an empty airplane.” I speak quietly, so that Martin can’t hear me; he doesn’t know what autism is, or that he has it. I imagine maybe the gate agent thinks I speak quietly because I don’t want the other passengers to know my son has autism.
Ha! fooled you! I’m probably never going to see these people after this flight. Who cares what they know? In fact, they should all hear that Martin has autism, and see how well he’s doing. Biomed evangelism.
Technically, I’m not lying. My son does have autism, and it is easier to enter an empty airplane. I mean, who doesn’t like to get on first? There’s ample space for our carry-on bags. We have time to arrange our little nests with iPads and laptop and water bottle and snacks. I have a few minutes to pray, as is my habit before flying.
I wonder what I would do if a gate agent asked, “Is that really necessary?” I wouldn’t lie outright. Probably I’d have to respond something like, “Necessary? Well, no. It isn’t necessary. But it sure is easier.” Then I’d smile, and probably be allowed to get on first.
I do ask myself whether my requesting consideration might make travel more difficult for families who really need it. If I ask for pre-boarding and the gate agent watches my calm, chatty boy board without issue, will s/he be more likely to refuse future requests? As more and more children are diagnosed with ASD, hyperactivity, sensory processing issues, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, am I contributing to an indifferent attitude of, “Yeah, yeah. Everyone’s got a sob story”? (Someone actually said that once, to a fellow ASD mom I know, as she tried to explain why her son needed to get in the pool even though they arrived late for swim lessons.) One indicator of my ambivalence at the airport is that I do not ask to pre-board if any child in the waiting area appears higher-need than Martin. If I see a caregiver dealing with bolting, or meltdowns, or overt anxiety, I’m going to let that group take the special privileges. All the special privileges. Then I’m going to make them think I’m weird as I hover close by, looking for ways I might assist.
Why do I request to pre-board airplanes at all? I suppose I do so because autism is a pain in the ass, and autism recovery is this overwhelming process, and my family has to fight constantly, has to fight school boards and insurance companies and even doctors just to receive services to help Martin, and I figure that, once in a while, in this one little instance, the world can do us a favor. It is what it is.
And of course, no gate agent ever has challenged me. I’ve daydreamed that “autism” could be a magic word. Sometimes, voila! When Martin and I flew overnight to South America in February, our assigned seats were across the aisle from each other. As I waited in line to talk to the gate agent at JFK, I heard her tell the passengers before me that the flight was full, and that no seat changes were possible. She told me the same thing, and added that, when it comes to traveling with family members, being seated across the aisle from each other is considered being seated together. I leaned across the counter and said quietly, “My son has autism.” Oh? The agent immediately took our boarding passes and started typing into her computer. A minute later she said, “It looks like I can get you seats directly next to each other, after all,” and handed me new boarding passes, 22 rows forward from our original assignments. They were “economy plus” seats, she explained, but we would not be charged the extra fee.
“Thank you so much. You’re very kind,” I said. “One more thing—would you mind if we pre-board?”