Associated with Down’s Syndrome Freddie has developmental delay, speech and language delay, and learning difficulties. Two things that this means in practice are: that he has difficulty processing and following instructions, and that he has no sense of danger. So, when we are out in public, especially in crowded or unfamiliar places, I either put him on reins or in a buggy.
Some would think it inappropriate, or just plain wrong, to do this to a six-year-old; that I am ‘making a baby of him’, denying him his right to develop independence. But, let me tell you, Freddie is a bold and inquisitive boy, an enthusiastic absconder – if he sees a chance to escape and explore by himself he will take it, with no concept of the fact that he might get lost or hurt. I have to balance his need to to be allowed to develop independence with his need to be kept safe; and I have to balance both of those concerns with the needs of the rest of my family, to go about daily activities in a staightforward manner with the minimum of stress. I decided that at the airport Freddie would have to sit in his buggy, since we would have three suitcases plus hand baggage to contend with. As we use an extra-large special needs buggy, the lady at the travel agent checked with the airline to make sure that we would be able to keep it right up until boarding.
At first glance the departures hall looked like one big, chaotic forest of bodies and suitcases, but it was, in fact, two seperate queues of people, funnelled slalom-fashion around strategically placed Tensa-barriers, to the appropriate check-in desks. ‘Our’ line was by far the longest. We joined it with a kind of weary trepidation. Freddie is not good at waiting.
Time ticked by slowly. About every ten minutes or so we were able to shuffle forward a few paces, dragging our luggage. But, thankfully, due to a supply of raisins and the frequent attentions of his sister, Freddie remained quite jovial – and why not? After all, he had a comfy, sheepskin-lined seat when everyone else was standing. He amused himself by winking at a man who made eye contact with him, and soon they had a little back-and-forward game going on.
In my home town I don’t particularly notice whether or not people give us funny looks or stare. But on this day I became aware of a woman gazing at us intently. I reasoned that she was, perhaps, just curious, or bored and in need of distraction. Then I realised something else too … that I was completely at peace with her. I genuinely did not give a hoot that she was staring, or why, or about what she might have been thinking of us. It was a feeling of such liberation, such empowerment, that I gave her a big smile. She smiled back, and stopped looking at us.
If I could give a gift to my husband, or any other parent of a child with additional needs, I would parcel up that sensation of ‘completely-not-giving-a-fuck’-ness, and hand it over. With a bow on.
I suppose I could have turned our progress through the airport into a ‘quest’ for Freddie – first we have to accomplish this, then we have to do that, then we have to pass a test (the one where a man stares at your passport photo with a look that suggests he’s wondering if it’s really you, or if you are some kind of deranged nutter who shouldn’t be allowed to fly). But I don’t have the kind of focus and energy required for that, at the crack of dawn. And, anyway, it would have turned into rather a fraught game.
By the time we got to Security, Big Sister was beginning to show signs of nervous agitation.
‘What if they think I look like some random drug-smuggler?’
‘You don’t look anything at all like a drug-smuggler.’
‘Then I’m just the sort of person they would suspect!’
‘Look,’ I said, trying to take an adressing-fear-with-problem-solving approach, ‘if, by chance you do get searched you’ve got nothing to worry about, and you can ask to be searched by a woman.’
‘I don’t want to be searched by anyone!’ she wailed.
We put our hand luggage on the belt, with liquids and electricals in a seperate tray, and stepped through the metal detector. I went first, to show how straightforward it was. Lights began to flash and alarms ring. A uniformed man asked me to step to one side. He called over a young woman who ordered me to remove my shoes, belt, scarf and bracelet. She patted me down, even putting her hands in my waistband, then ran told me to stand with arms and legs spread while she ran a hand-held device over me. Big Sister was shaking as she came through the detector. Once again, lights and alarms blared out.
‘Nothing to worry about, miss,’ said the man, ‘you’ve just been randomely selected by the computer.’
Nevertheless, she had to undergo the same procedure as me, in front of everyone going through security. By the time it was over and they let her go, she was sobbing. Meanwhile Daddy, Freddie, and the big metal buggy had gone through without any problem. I was made to go through the detector again before they finally gave me back my accessories and told me I could proceed.
Daddy, Freddie and Big Sister had collected their bags from the scanner and were ready to go to the departure gate (via Duty Free), but my bag had not appeared. A man behind the counter called out: ‘is this anyone’s bag?’ and held up my holdall.
‘Scanner says it’s got liquids in it.’
‘But all my liquids are here in the tray,’ I said, indicating a clear plastic bag full of make-up.
He searched through my stuff with gloved hands and didn’t find anything, so sent it through the scanner again. Once again it was held back. Again it was searched to no avail and sent back through. Again it was held back.
I asked the man if he’d looked in the side pocket. I’d put some sachets of Freddie’s medicine in there, but it was powder, not liquid. He looked in the pocket, pulled out the sachets, declared them ok … then say a 150ml bottle of hand gel that had been in there since god-knows-when that I was completely unaware of. This time the bag passed through without a problem and I was able to rejoin my party, all three of whom were now on the verge of hysteria.
Stress level maximum.
Big Sister was wailing that she didn’t want to go, she wasn’t going to get on the plane. I reassured her that taking off was probably the worst bit. Once that was over, she wouldn’t notice much difference between a flight and a bus ride.
‘You don’t understand,’ she cried, ‘there’s much more that can go wrong with landing.’
Big sister is an Air Cadet. Her squadron have a fancy flight simulator, laid out to accurately replicate a genuine aircraft cockpit. They use it often, and, though I say it myself, she’s a bit of a whizz on it. In theory, at least, she knows how to take off, fly, and land a plane. But that knowledge seemed to be making things worse as we dragged our frayed nerves to depature gate 16 …