ATLANTA, Ga. — Three-year-old Nigel Odom has come a long way since he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when he was 12-months old.
He now plays happily with his 5-year-old big sister Sidney and is thriving in Marcus Autism Center’s preschool, where he’s building his social skills.
“He is now dubbed the mayor of the preschool, and is super social, talkative, a happy little kid,” his mother Jenny Odom told Atlanta’s WAGA.
But when Nigel travels, things can get tricky. When he was almost 2, Jenny Odom flew with Nigel on her lap to Oregon, a trip that involved 4 different flights.
Each time they took off, she says, Nigel would be okay for a while, but then he’d reach a breaking point.
“He was screaming, and he would do that thing where kids straighten like a board,” Jenny Odom remembers. “He wouldn’t let me hold him. He was flailing, like trying to get me off of him.”
All she could do was hold him tightly and ride it out. She tried walking the aisles and staying in the plane‘s back galley. Fortunately, the other passengers and the flight crew were understanding, Odom says.
“This one lady came up and was like, ‘You look stressed. Can I touch your back and your head and calm you down, like calm the situation,’ Odom says. “And, I was, like, absolutely! It didn’t do anything.”
But, she says, she was grateful for the woman’s gesture.
Cheryl Rhodes, Director of Care Coordination at Marcus Autism Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, says the most important thing parents of children on the spectrum can do is plan ahead.
If you’re flying, before your trip, she says, talks your child through each step of the process, including how you’ll pass through TSA checkpoints.
You may want to rehearse the process at home, going step by step.
“You’re going to have to walk through this turnstile, I won’t be able to hold your hand,” Rhodes recommends saying. “You’re going to have to walk in front of me. Don’t run. You have to put your stuffed bear on the conveyor belt.”
Jenny Odom has learned to pack everything Nigel might need on their flight.
“Try to give your kid as much control as you can,” she says. “Maybe they have their own backpack, with their own snacks, their own drinks, their ‘lovies; the books they love, the activities they love.”
For children on the spectrum, Hartsfield Jackson International Airport has a sensory-friendly waiting room.
And, Rhodes says, ask your airline about which seats might be best for your child.
A window seat can help a child feel more secure.
An aisle seat will allow the child to move around.
Or, Rhodes says, your child may need a bulkhead seat.
“For those kids who like to kick the seat in front of them, this can be a godsend,” she says.
Next month, the Odoms will head to the beach, which involves a 7-hour car trip with Nigel.
“We’ll probably show him pictures of the beach house,” Jenny Odom says. “And we’ll say, ‘Look, here is the beach, and here’s the pool where you’re going to swim.'”
“You want to bring things your child enjoys,” Cheryl Rhodes recommends. “Bring preferred snacks, maybe even a pillow. So, they can take a nap.”
Build in rest breaks, she says, and reward your child for good behavior with praise, stickers or a small toy.
“Maybe it’s saying, ‘We’re going to go to a restaurant with an indoor playground, at exit #201,'” Jenny Odom says. “‘So, when we get there, we get to take a break. And you get a milkshake if you’re good.'”
Jenny Odom knows there will be bumps in the road. If you see a child hitting a bump, she says, offer help. If you can’t help, Odom says, give the child and his or her parents a little grace.
“If my child is freaking out, don’t shoot me dirty looks,” Jenny Odom smiles. ” I know he’s freaking out. I don’t need your opinion, too. We’re all trying to get through this. I’m sorry. Let’s just get through this.”
For travel tips on flying or making car trips with children with an autism spectrum disorder, visit marcus.org/traveltips.