Flying – My Autistic perspective

I don’t remember my first flight.

It was 1990 and it was to Delhi via Kuwait. It was the days of smoking on aircraft and the quite frankly fatuous question, “Smoking or non-smoking ?” when the air wasn’t filtered enough to avoid the stench and, inevitably, you had to pass through clouds of noxious fumes to reach the nearest toilet.

As someone who abhors smoking (both my parents smoked) that was a deeply disturbing sensory experience.

Of course smoking is now banned so all I have to contend with is competing aftershaves, people drenched in perfume, stale sweat and B.O. and the strange smells wafting from the gally. It’s not much of an improvement!.

I’ve always found flying quite dull. But it’s also vaguely comforting. Once the excitement of taking off is over (love that bit as I find it a thrill) I settle back into a routine of doing very little.

I’ve flown day and night and whilst people think night flights are just a case of nodding off, I’ve always found that not to be the case with me. At 6’4″ it’s hard to sleep when you have zero leg room and are crammed into a tiny, uncomfortable seat that no amount of what are laughingly called pillows, offer the slightest vestiges of support. That’s another sensory issue and, trust me, the experience is not improved by fibromyalgia!

Planes are noisy places. The outside air rush, the chatter and snoring of fellow passengers, the banging of the lunch carts, the “boing” of seatbelt signs going on and off and the occasional garbled announcement from the captain. This is definitely where good quality noise cancelling headphones come in handy. If you have them.

Eating is, of course, a sensory experience. I’m not a fan of airplane food. I’ve had some okay and some average, but most falls into the category of “oh dear god, what’s this supposed to be because it’s nauseating!”. On several occasions I’ve failed to recognise the food from its description. I literally could be eating anything. And trying to eat when you’re being jabbed in the chest by an errant elbow from the person next to you hardly improves matters.

Flying doesn’t worry me. I don’t find it scary or concerning. I trust the pilot will get me from A to B and it’s a rare case of me abandoning total control over my destiny to a third party.

Flying is very much a masking exercise. I can pick my seat (and then they change the aircraft so that plan goes out the window) and I can choose my meal but really that’s it. I can’t choose the other passengers or their eating and sleeping habits. I can’t choose, selection availability notwithstanding, the “entertainment” (if it’s working) and I have no control over the plane or outside weather elements that might affect our flight.

I’m surrendering myself to fate.

So I blend in.

I’ve become used to it now. I get lost in the crowd of passengers. I’m just another traveller. I sit quietly. I accept the occasional offer of a drink or meal with the appropriate gesture. I visit the toilet to break the monotony. I helpfully put bags into the overhead lockers. I even read the safety card and watch the safety demonstration. I’m now the NT passenger.

So why do it ?. Why encounter so many sensory issues with, lets be honest, no opportunity of escape ?. It’s not like I can open a window or find a quiet room.

The answer lies in the destination. The knowledge that where I’m going and what I’m going to see will outweigh the necessary evil of flying. That what I have to endure plays just a small part in the overall experience.

But it’s not Autism friendly. It’s not comfortable, quiet, easy or relaxing. It’s several tension filled hours I really wish I could do without.

And when all you really want to do is travel you have no choice.

Here’s to the next time…. sort of.

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