Embarrassment Unchained – The Airport Story

by Dr. Karen Colvin on April 2, 2014

in The Autism Times

PLANEAND SUNSETI’m sure many parents who have children with autism have an “airport story” or a rattling story of traveling with their child with autism. This is such a story.

In November 2005 my family and I decided to travel by plane to Atlanta for Thanksgiving. Matthew, my 10 year old son diagnosed with autism, had been on a plane several times before, therefore I had no great anxiety about traveling with him once again.

I was excited to go as my mother and other family members lived in Atlanta and we have not seen them for several years. When we arrived at Atlanta’s Hartsfield – Jackson International Airport I noticed as we walked to the escalators that there was a video store. Now you have to know that my son Matthew is obsessed with animated DVDs, videos and books. As we were walking to the escalators on arrival I felt him pull from me toward the store, but I was able to pull him back next to me and proceed on to the escalators.

We had a good time in Atlanta and then day came for us to return to Denver. As we were walking through the airport, I was busy with the memories of the previous days and I failed to hold on to Matthew as were walking together down the concourse. Matthew seemed to be in the flow of the walk therefore I saw no reason for extra caution, but I forgot about the video store! His sister, Kristen who was 11 years old, was walking on the other side of him. With no one holding on to him he saw his chance; and slipped away to escape before I could pull him back. Matthew made a run for the store.

As circumstance would have it, the person running the store had decided to take a break and had pulled the gate almost close. But Matthew, who was a master at obtaining DVD’s, noticed the 2 inch crack that revealed that the gate was not locked! He proceeded to pull the gate open, get behind the counter and pull DVD’s off of the rack. He locked on to one in particular, “Madagascar”.

As an experience mom of a 10-year-old with autism (LOL) I learned how to “go packing”. I had many items in my backpack to entice Matthew to comply when we were in the community. I pulled out every DVD that I could find in my backpack but nothing I had could compete with the “new” Madagascar DVD.

I realized this was going to be a physical removal! As I began to pull him out from behind the counter, leaving the Madagascar video behind, he started screaming and fell to the ground. Of course this started to draw a crowd. I began going through my backpack trying to find anything to entice him to get up and continue walking down the concourse but with no success. As I looked up glancing at the growing crowd I saw an airport security guard standing there. He began asking me questions about what was going on. I attempted to give him a short course on autism. As I finished explaining the basic symptoms, another airport security guard arrived.

My daughter Kristen began pacing and crying believing that her 10-year-old brother was about to be arrested – and frankly, so did I! This was several years following 9/11 and airport security was still rather tense about unusual activity. So I continue to try to convince them that Matthew was not a terrorist as the Atlanta Police arrived!

I finally remembered the cough syrup that I had put in my backpack in case Matthew got too agitated on the trip. I pulled the cough syrup out and convinced the police that if I could just give him a dose of his medicine he would be okay, but I did not have a spoon or even juice to put it in so that he could take it.  Then God sent an angel, a lady who had wandered over from the deli on the other side of the concourse; she volunteered to go and bring us some juice.

Meanwhile the guy who was running the video store finally returned. I’m sure he was wondering what was all the excitement in front of his video kiosk. Please understand, usually I don’t give into Matthew’s negative behaviors, but under the circumstances – his impending arrest, I decided to buy the Madagascar DVD. I purchased the DVD handed it to Matthew as he stood on his feet. At that point I heard the familiar, “beep, beep, beep”, of the “airport buggy”. You know the one that takes people unable to walk to their gate.

Flanked by two Atlanta police officers Matthew was escorted onto the airport buggy. I got in the front seat with the driver and we started down the concourse toward our gate. The nice lady from the deli had returned and we were able to give Matthew a dose of cough syrup. This lady also stayed to walk Kristen to the gate as there was no more room in the buggy.

It took everything within me not burst into tears. I couldn’t – Kristen was already falling apart and I had to hold it together for her sake. Matthew on the other hand was not phased by the whole incident. He had his DVD and his world was fine. He didn’t even know that he was in custody – so to speak!  As I glanced back at him as we were riding down the concourse, beeping all the way, he had the biggest smile on his face as he was reading all the details on the DVD cover.

I glanced over at one of the police officers who looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes and he said to me, “I can only imagine what your life must be like every day”.  I did not know how to respond to that comment. I only thought to myself, “Do we look that bad?” God, I didn’t know that we looked that bad – so bad that we brought an Atlanta police officer to tears.

Well we finally got to our gate and a representative of the airline was waiting for us. I think they radioed ahead that Matthew was coming! He said to me, “Ma’am I’m not sure we’re going to let him board the plane”. I looked this man dead in the eyes, still shaking from the recent trauma, and said, “We will board this plane because I’m not doing this again tomorrow!”.  Now I was ready to become a terrorist. I think when he saw the determined look in my eyes he decided to stand down and let us board the plane with the comment, “If he is disruptive we will have to take them off the plane”. I nodded in agreement and we boarded the plane.

The flight was uneventful. As we were arriving in Denver and the captain made the announcement that we would be landing in a few minutes my heart jumped into my throat as I realized I had to get Matthew through another large airport. What if the Atlanta Police radioed ahead!? I looked at Kristen and I told her the plan. Each of us would take Matt’s arms and lock them in ours and we would make a beeline to the trains and then to the baggage claim. With God’s help we made it out of Denver International Airport without an incident.

It took me weeks maybe even months before I recovered from that trauma. Till this day I have not taken Matthew to another airport as I have considered certain choices could put him in jeopardy.

I’ve told this story to many people who laugh hilariously at the details of this incident. I can laugh now too as I look back on it today. I joke that the Atlanta Police probably has Matt’s picture posted as a potential airport terrorist.

That incident helped to cured me of a lot of embarrassment I used to feel about Matthew’s behavior. At that moment all I could think of was protecting my child and keeping him from people who did understand him or his diagnosis. I often tell parents and caregivers, when I’m doing autism trainings, that the people that stare at you when your child has difficult behaviors in public will be in your life all of five minutes but your child will be in your life forever. Do what needs to be done for your child. Embarrassment is transient; it is something that can change from terror to laughter. It is just a matter of time.



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Madelene Barkins April 6, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Hello Sharon old Hornell/Syracuse friend,I pray each and every day for parents ,but I pray an extra prayer for parents with children living with Autism. My godson whom i was the caregiver for 10hours a day until he was in school full time filled my day with joy, excitement, frustration, anger and love. My days spent with him taught me alot of things and continues to teach me. He is now 13 and when I look at his accomplishment I see Gods unabiding love at work. His parents are awsome and with God’s help they continue to walk this journey day by day . Thank you Sharon for sharing.


Dr. Karen Colvin April 8, 2014 at 1:53 am

Madelene, so good to hear from you. Remain encouraged. The investment you make in any child’s life is always worth it and is counted as a treasure for you before the Lord.


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