• Nicola Wakeling

I'm not crying, you're crying!

My daughter is approx. 1700 miles away from me, halfway to her country of birth, all by herself. I don’t think she’s ever even stayed in another town from me! She’s barely even had any sleep overs. This is all just hitting me now. Hard.

She was originally due to fly yesterday but it didn’t go to plan. I feel like the universe is sending me a lesson that I’m failing. I need to take ownership. Last week I got a parking fine as my disability permit wasn’t clearly displayed and although I understood this, my head fought it. The permit hasn’t been designed to sit, easily displayed on my dashboard! Why would anyone fine me for this! Urgh! And now the lesson has returned on steroids! I didn’t bring my daughter’s residency visa to the airport and she wasn’t able to fly as a result. My brain goes to every possible alternative scenario that could have unfolded and if only one thing was done differently, we would have been ok. We worked so hard to make that flight happen and yet it didn’t. Planning and organisation are probably my weakest executive functioning skills yet I felt that I had nailed it and ploughed so much focus into our smooth airport departure, nothing could go wrong. But it did.

I can’t tell you how many times I was told to just let it go as I repeatedly tried to process our devastation through anyone who would listen. I knew I had to go through this process and I knew that it would pass. I just tried to be mindful that people might not want to listen! In the end, I still feel that there were several things that happened other than my oversight that contributed to our difficult experience but I’ve decided that I can shift my blame to a more practical place. I can let people know what happened so that they won’t make the same mistake and I can speak to the airlines and suggest my improvements to them, whilst raising awareness of our experience through an autistic lens.

This weekend has totally floored me. I feel completely out of spoons and totally drained both physically and emotionally. But there’s always a gift! I got to see my daughter face this situation with such wisdom and grace and proceed with a level of bravery that has blown us away. This kid is always surprising us, but she has been so sure that she couldn’t possibly travel alone and yet when her friend had to leave without her yesterday, she was not standing down. This is where I can relate to my daughter, when we have something in mind, we do not let it go! We stick to our plans and make things happen. She has had this flight in mind for nearly 2 years and time and time again it didn’t work out for her. She never gave up, she kept planning, packing, talking about her trip and today although it wasn’t how it was meant to be, off she went.

She went with confidence and clarity. A smile on her face, a big thumbs up and filled with excitement. She’s a classic example of someone who ‘doesn’t look autistic’ and in some ways this is frustrating for me. Trying to explain to the flight crew looking out for her as an unaccompanied minor that she has a disability and she may find certain things difficult without using functioning labels or limiting her in any way isn't easy. Then watching as she surprises us all and breezes every step of the departure. That might not make any sense but in my eyes she’s vulnerable, she’s young and she’s delicate and I want to make sure that she’s got the appropriate amount of care whilst still honouring her independence. She is so capable and as a PDA child she needs to be in full control, so looking back it makes sense that she thrived in this adventure we witnessed taking off today. I feel like a total contradiction because my daughter really is all of these things and I try to predict her needs before they arise but often I get them totally wrong!

Yesterday’s upset set me off on a path of analysing her emotional response to what happened. You see this is where we really differ, like polar opposite. I react with big emotions and they come thick and fast! I initially hesitated and considered holding back my tears at the airport when faced with the possibility of her not boarding that long anticipated flight, but it got too much. The build up was immense and intense as we frantically got a neighbour and a taxi to speed that visa to us at departures. We missed the gate closing by 2 minutes and honestly, the scene was like something from a movie, which doesn’t surprise my friends at all as this seems to be the genre of my life.

My fears were for my daughter, not for myself. After all, I was happy to have another 24hrs with my firstborn and couldn’t comprehend how I would now be feeling as I pass her empty bedroom and my stomach turns! In that moment I felt everything that she has been going through and working towards and how thoroughly awful this was, but all through my own lens. What I find interesting is that this was not her response. She was calm, she was rational, she was wise, very matter of fact and quite positive. Initially she said that she was sure this was all going to be ok and that she knows she’s meant to get on this flight. There was still no way that she would fly alone the following day. We bargained with the airline staff to delay the flight for her as we showed them the progress of our visa carrying taxi driver. My daughter didn’t expect anyone to wait and said that she’d be annoyed if she was on the flight waiting for someone! I love her reasoning. At that moment, I was consumed with making everything possible for her, despite the knock on effect to others. I felt that this was fair. After all, we had been delayed before getting to security and if this hadn't happened. we would have been able to get her visa by now!

I worried that the very likelihood of her not making it onto the plane wasn’t on her mind and she may not be prepared for the worst. We tried to prepare her whilst also doing everything we could to make it work. When we finally heard the dreaded news of the gate closing, it hit me hard. For a moment I thought we’d made it and my girl had never lost hope. I cried, the crew member supporting her cried. We told the staff that we needed her luggage as she had been adamant that she wasn’t traveling alone the next day and as we did, she calmly told us otherwise. She would return and she was going!

No matter how much anger, frustration, despair and upset I released, my daughter remained consistent. She told me that she was disappointed but she’ll return tomorrow at the same time and do everything in the same way. The next flight didn’t feel right to her and wouldn’t fit with her routine. I admired the clarity in how she processed and communicated her next steps. Meanwhile, my emotions continued through the evening and increased the next day. As I attempted to redo all the paperwork, as carefully as I tried, I made mistake after mistake. My anxiety soared. I’m still really wobbly, now 8 hours later and I imagine her sitting watching movies and enjoying the flight. How can we be so different? Is there something wrong with one of us? I’ve spent my life being told that I’m dramatic and over sensitive and I’m finally owning my emotions and I’m ok with them. So is it healthy to be the opposite? Should I be worried? Is there an ideal middle ground? I’m finding myself exploring what it means to be #alexithymic and trying to understand if she has these big feelings but can’t express them, doesn’t recognise her emotions or is just really a great example to me to follow her lead. After all, if my feelings are because I’m worried about her, I might not need to be so worried. I wish I knew the answers here as it would really make such a difference. This is part of how she received a diagnosis of autism and yet even a few years later, I still have so much to learn. But I’m wondering if I really do need to understand her as much as I’d like to when I’m only just learning about myself since her autistic identity highlighted my own.

Today I felt like a huge failure. My thoughts have gone from, why the hell am I sending my child across the globe during a pandemic!? To, maybe she’s not meant to go across the globe and I’m missing the signs! To, why can’t I get this right? Why wasn’t I capable of getting all the papers accurately together. Is this really good enough? What if my daughter never wants to come back? Is it even ok for me to talk about this publicly online? I’m trying to talk less about my kids and more about my own experiences as a #neurodivergent adult and mother but it’s so intertwined and separating any of this stuff just feels so complicated. What I’d like to put my energy into moving forward is finding out what other airlines do to support unaccompanied minors with a DPNA code and giving my feedback to the airline in the hope that improvements can be made for others. I’d love to hear your experiences.

As for us, we could wait with our child in the business class lounge until the last minute, when she would be escorted through security to the plane. Her helper had taken all her documents when we checked in and was wonderfully reassuring and helpful. Our problem with this was that not only had we forgotten the visa but there had been a delay and when she was escorted to security, it was only then that she was found to not have her residency visa in her new passport. This made it very difficult for us to rectify. We had sat in the airport for 2 hours prior to our handover and if only she had gone through earlier or her escort had a checklist for this process we could have made it. I read a blog about one family's experience of being able to take their autistic son right up to the gate and wait with him. How wonderful is that? I hope that by having these discussions we can make room for improvements and ultimately help more people to travel with ease and avoid potentially disastrous disappointments.

#actuallyautistic #unaccompaniedminor #dpnacode #flying #travel #inclusivetravel #executivefunctioning #autistic #alexithymia #autismblog

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