I should say right at the outset that I like flying! Once I am in my seat, I know the rules and what to expect, so I can relax and enjoy the experience.
This is just as well, because flying has been quite a large part of my job over the past forty years or so, attending conferences, sitting on scientific committees, and even going on holidays (occasionally).
But whenever people say to me: "you can't be autistic, you're too high functioning", I reply: "you've never seen me going through an airport". After hundreds of trips through these uniquely hostile environments, I still haven't figured out a way to make it on my own without having a shut-down or a panic attack.
Since the diagnosis, I have now finally understood what has been going on. The last few times I have flown, I have made use of special assistance, which has been a great help. It has meant that I arrive at my destination fairly relaxed, rather than in a total mess. Some airports even provide videos of the process, which have been an enormous help in reducing anxiety. I actually watch these videos over and over again, even when I'm not flying.
I also wear the sunflower lanyard. This scheme, which also operates in some supermarkets now, is a godsend. When I am disorientated and lost and barely able to speak, as often happens, a member of staff will spot me and help. I can get confused by even the most apparently simple thing, so having this support on hand is fantastic.
So, what is it that presents such difficulties? There are so many things, it is hard to describe them all. Suffice to say, the combination of these is always overwhelming.
I don't like spaces in which I can't see the walls. I lose my proprioception (which has been damaged by Ménière's too, but that's another story). I don't know where I am, which then quickly means I don't know who I am.
Every airport is made of shiny hard surfaces. There is noise everywhere and a wild array of signs that all seem important. And yet it is almost impossible to figure out where to go. I have often spent a long time standing forlornly in the entrance area, trying to work out which signs to follow, which route to take. I try to rationalise it into: you've got to get yourself into the system, then they can't lose you. But I frequently cannot figure out how to do that, then when I do something goes wrong (usually something to do with check-in).
Escalators everywhere, going somewhere/nowhere. And people...people knowing where they are going, striding purposefully, while I stand and watch. I can often travel up and down escalators several times before figuring out which one is right.
People are stressed in airports. I have seen kindness, but I have also seen the reverse. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer chaos of all the people and the social pressure they emanate as you enter the system. It is completely overwhelming.
The sheer terror of it. Passport, boarding pass, extra pass because the online check-in failed, hand luggage, checked-in luggage. Apart from having to remember all this and keep an eye on it, the real stress comes in security, of which more in a moment.
Shiny surfaces. Shops and their smells. Noise everywhere: people, vehicles, planes, shops, machines, it's just deafening. Horrible lighting - everything is too bright. Asymmetrical patterns. Hand-dryers. Vehicles. Every single thing combines to leave me mentally shaken up.
The fear of getting it wrong. I follow the rules as closely as I can, but I am always one step from total failure. The queues are not straight! And the encounter with officialdom is the first of a series of anxiety-inducing situations. That feeling of being sized up. The need to make eye contact. And then the incomprehensible instructions to go to a different gate when, as always seems to happen, the online check-in does not work properly and you have to get a printed ticket.
And now the biggest torture of the them all! This is where I usually shut down. I have stood motionless, unable to speak, surrounded by angry and frustrated fellow-passengers, while I try to find the necessary presence of mind to move forwards. Having to remove metal objects. Following a set of rules that seems to change every time (e.g. shoes/not shoes). The opening of the bags and the arbitrary separation off into another part of the space to be interrogated. The feeling that even a small wrong look or remark can have you arrested as a terrorist. This compounds the inability to read facial expressions. The scan of the body. The violation of oneself. And the indignity of having to put everything back on while people's bags travel down the conveyor belt and shove you along. Disgruntled passengers wanting you to hurry. I'm beginning to panic just writing this! And it all takes place under horrendous lights in a massive noisy area full of machines and people in uniforms shouting incomprehensible instructions.
Since I have been getting special assistance, the sheer extent of my inability to go through Security has been brought home to me. At one point, my escort pointed to two yellow footprints painted on the floor. "Just stand there", he said. I spent ages trying to fit my size 11 shoes exactly into the size 7 footprints, which were arranged at an odd angle, while he stood bemusedly looking on and wondering what to do (I think). I'm a Professor! Yet I cannot understand even this simple instruction. And the worst of it is, I never learn. I make the same mistakes over and over again.
Duty-freeHaving got through social hell, it's now time to experience more sensory hell. Why they put a massive perfume shop immediately after Security is anybody's guess, but there is no escape: you have to walk through it. The perfume is violent and sickening, sending my head into a spin. This is usually the last straw for me and I am now in a state of total shut-down, unable to communicate effectively. It can take me an hour or more to recover, which is why I always turn up for my flights about 3 hours early.
The boarding gates are pretty stressful too, mainly because of the crowds and the strange ways we have to board the plane. Whether it's a bus and a walk across the tarmac or one of those corridors on wheels, it is always a pressured situation. Getting on to the plane and finding my seat is a relief.
Before my diagnosis, I had a number of coping strategies. One was to locate the multi-faith prayer room. I'm not religious, but this is usually the only quiet space in the whole airport. I'm willing to pretend to pray just to escape the maelstrom. Another was to use technology to help. I have a personal air purifier which I wear around my neck. I find this helps both with repelling perfume and germs, and with calming me down. I have worn hearing aids for over a decade and I can set them to play tinnitus relief sounds such as white noise, which sometimes helps. And I would use headphones to blot out noise. Since the diagnosis, I have realised that noise-cancelling headphones are a necessity and these have really helped. I have also worn clip-on sunglasses. And I stim - I used to do this anyway, but now I am much more open about it - with a fidget toy or sometimes hand flapping/finger tapping. But the best thing has been the Special Assistance. Being escorted and told where to sit, where to go, etc. has been a massive relief. Also, they have taken me through a side door after Security in order to avoid Duty Free! That has been bliss. And on one occasion the person who was escorting me was autistic himself! So we had an interesting chat. I usually get on well with other autistic people (surprise, surprise).
On reading this, my wife said: but the real question is: why on earth have you done so much flying if you find airports so traumatic? It's true that I could have declined many of the conference invitations, scientific committee requests, etc. But I did not for two main reasons: first, they are an integral part of my job and important for keeping up to date with the latest research etc.; and second, I always enjoy what I find when I arrive at my destination. After a period of recuperation (usually about 18 hours) I can get out and about. Somehow I manage to forget about the trauma of the airport, until it's time to make the return journey.