“Excuse me,” I politely uttered to the TSA agent who was standing at the head of the mile-long security line at the airport. She barely looked up but I knew she could see us standing there. I felt Matthew’s limp hand in mine, and I was trying to not lose my grip on his hand or on my patience. I continued, “My son is not going to be able to wait in this line. Can my husband and daughter wait in the line for our family, and when they get to the front, my son and I join them to go through security?”
“You gotta get in the line,” was the automatic and monotone reply. She didn’t even look up.
I will use the D word, or the “A card” and get around this, I thought to myself.
“My son has a disability (D word) and is not able to wait in this line,” I explained calmly, although I was feeling anything but calm.
“I don’t see no wheelchair,” was the TSA agent’s blunt reply.
Oh, so now I have to provide disability awareness, I thought as my heartbeat quickened.
“He doesn’t have a physical disability, he has autism (the “A card”), which makes it impossible for him to stand in this line,” I was intensely aware of my shaky voice, my weakened patience and the lump in my throat.
“I don’t see no wheelchair,” she repeated.
“He doesn’t have a physical disability. He has autism. He doesn’t need a wheelchair.” I repeated.
“I don’t see no wheelchair,” it was like talking to a broken record.
“He doesn’t need a wheelchair. He has an intellectual disability. Not a physical disability.” I had lost my grip on Matthew’s hand and on my patience for this conversation.
“I don’t see no wheelchair.”
My mouth opened, but nothing came out – and if I did muster up the courage needed to speak any more words, I knew those words would be accompanied by tears. Matthew was laying on the floor next to me, wailing, “Mommy? Mommy?” in his scared and uncertain voice. He could sense that Mommy was losing this battle.
In my role as Matthew’s mom, I am constantly advocating for his rights while aiming to spread disability awareness. Sometimes this takes place at a school meeting while advocating for more time with the speech therapist or behavior analyst to meet his educational goals. Other times it’s disability awareness at the playground or the pool explaining to another child who is staring at him why Matthew is flapping with his whole body while watching the lifeguards change seats. I encourage people to ask questions about Matthew and his autism. I want to help others understand this misunderstood diagnosis as best I can. Matthew is a great teacher for us all. He is a gift.
This security line situation was similar to other experiences I’ve had as his advocate, yet somehow it felt more challenging. Perhaps it was the eyes of the other passengers waiting in line that I felt on my back. Or my awareness of the clock ticking as our boarding time quickly approached.
I knew I had to peel Matty off the airport floor, get his hands sanitized (he often puts them in his mouth), and figure out a way to bypass this line. I was unsure of my next move. That’s when I saw a stranger’s hand from the line beckoning me toward her. As I got close enough, in a hushed tone, the older woman who had waved me over looked at me and said with the calm confidence of a master yoga teacher, “Honey, put him in a wheelchair.” As simple as that.
What? Put him in a wheelchair? I silently repeated to myself. A light bulb went off in my head and my next move became clear as I started walking to the ticket area to secure a wheelchair. As a special needs mom, I often can’t “see the light” or the solution to a small problem because I am too close to the situation and overly emotionally attached.
I am forever grateful to this helpful stranger in the security line who instantly became one of my guides. I imagine that she is a retired special educator, or perhaps a warrior mom herself. She was in the right place at the right time to help me see the light. Now, when we travel, I specify that a wheelchair will be necessary while purchasing the airline tickets months in advance. Matthew is calm and relaxed once he sits in the chair, and we avoid the long lines at security.
I have an abundance of guides who have supported me along this journey so far. Guides can appear in the form of a kind stranger in the security line at the airport. Others have been special camp counselors, dedicated teachers, protective neighbors, family members and friends – new and old. My most helpful guides have been other parents to a child with a disability who is just a little older than Matthew.
I trust that I will continue discovering my guides as Matthew gets older. Once I appreciated the value of support that my first guides brought to me in the form of hope, community and empowerment, my intention has been to guide others who are on this road with children younger than Matthew. I know that I can shine a light for others the way the light has been shone for me.
P.S. Yes, it was a brilliant moment of satisfaction when I returned to that same TSA agent - with Matthew IN a wheelchair.
P.P.S. After many years, I have accepted that TSA agent as one of my guides. I learned something from her, too.