Flying autistic

For some time now, Schiphol has had green lanyards with sunflowers, for people with autism, or other invisible disabilities. With such a lanyard, employees should know that something is going on with you, so that they can respond in a helpful way to meltdowns or other problems. My first experience with this “service” was during my previous flight to Japan, last October.

Look me in the eye

You may have already read it on twitter, but for those who do not follow me there, a short summary. After a bag check where, despite the lanyard, I was unexpectedly searched – although I could still manage at the time – and a crazy passport check where I was allowed to insert into the existing line at the last minute, which made me very uncomfortable, there was The Confrontation.

I wasn’t looking for a confrontation at all. I just tried to board via priority boarding, because that seemed logical to me after VIP bag checks and no line passport checks. The British Airways ground stewardess did not agree. “Use the regular line next time”, she said while scanning my boarding pass. I pointed at my lanyard, but she didn’t respond as expected. “What is that?”, she asked in a tone that indicated she was not at all impressed. “It’s for disabilities,” I replied. “Hmm, I don’t know it”, she said with a shrug. Despite having just been told what it was for, she continued to respond in that nasty tone. “Well, you should know it!”, I may not have said very nicely as I walked onto the bridge.

Behind me I heard another ground stewardess, apparently the chief ground stewardess of the day, complaining about me: “She could have said that nicely! That’s not how we treat each other!” I stopped, turned around and said, “Do you know what it’s for?” The ground stewardess, who was going to show me who had the last word, came up to me and asked me to come along to “talk”. I didn’t feel like it, so I said I didn’t want to and tried to keep walking. Suddenly she stood in front of me with her arms stretched out. “Come and talk now or I’ll take you off the flight!”

I was put in a cubicle, and the lady said I had to “calm down”. “Look me in the eye”, she began. That made me anything but calm: “You really have no idea what those keycords are for, do you?!” She began to lecture me, and I felt like she was performing some kind of power play. I tried film with my phone, but she saw that. “Delete that now, or I’ll take you off the flight!”

It really took all my strength to stay calm and say yes and amen to everything, so that I wouldn’t get thrown off the flight. She finally let me go when I assured her I was really calm. But of course that was not the point at all for her. When the same chick got a passenger in a wheelchair at the gate a few seconds later, she suddenly acted totally sweet and nice. So sweet and nice, it seemed like she was putting on a show for me. Apparently a wheelchair was a better indication of a disability to her than someone who doesn’t look autistic at all with a sunflower lanyard.

Stress about an anti-stress blanket

Well, that was last time. After that experience, I decided never to use such a lanyard again. I had even thrown it away decisively. But then I was at the KLM desk yesterday morning to check in. I was once again stupid enough to request help, this time in the form of an extra suitcase for my weighted blanket. I had also rebooked part of my flight to business class, and I had specifically asked the customer service department whether my business class two suitcase allowance would also count for the first part of my flight, from Amsterdam to Paris.

Let’s go back to the blanket for a moment. Since I had booked through Air France, I had requested this through their service Saphir. There they just answer in Dutch, and one of those Dutch ladies answered that it was totally fine. She did mail me that she hoped my 7.7 kilo blanket was no more than 23 kilos(?), and she invariably called me “Mrs. Toeps” despite my repeated corrections. That’s not my (passport) name.

Well, it was taken care of, she said, but then I suddenly received a strange email. The mail looked as if it had come straight out of an 80’s dot matrix printer, full of codes and unclear language. At the very bottom, a line: “We request that you contact us within 24 hours about your weighted bkanket.” (Not my typo.) I called, and guess what? The request was denied. “We don’t know the size,” KLM/Air France told me. “But … Saphir’s staff member said I could just put the blanket in a suitcase?” The request was edited and submitted again. A week later I called, to check whether it was all taken care of now. “Yes, ma’am! Everything will be all right!”

Two days before my departure I received an email. Not bad news this time, but an “exceptional offer”. I could upgrade to business class, for only 500 euros. I decided to do it. My upgrade allowed me to bring two heavy suitcases, which I stuffed with clothes to trade at New York Joe Exchange. I mean, if you have extra luggage allowance you should take full advantage of it, right?

Because I had not upgraded my first, short flight from Amsterdam to Paris (because a flight of half an hour on a seat with different upholstery was not worth 90 euros), I inquired about my baggage allowance via Facebook chat to be sure. Did I have to arrange something extra for that? “No, you don’t have to, because the second part counts as a long-haul flight and then …” Well, in short, two suitcases was fine. Oh and, that medical baggage? “Eh, it has been rejected, it is still waiting for the format of the …” EXCUSES ME KLM ?! “Oh no, sorry for the confusion, ma’am, it’s just been approved!”

Good. So me and my three suitcases (two normal ones and one medical) went to Schiphol, to the check-in desk. Ground stewardess: “Uh ma’am, here it says one piece of luggage?”

After showing chat logs and screenshots, the medical suitcase was approved quickly, but she insisted that I had to pay 70, – for that “extra” business class suitcase. Well, if I had known that, I would have upgraded that first flight to business too. In the end three people had to be involved to conclude that when someone from customer service has made a promise, it should be kept.

So after all I didn’t have to pay anything extra, but because of all this hassle I was already 100% done with the whole day. In the corner of my eye I saw the assistance desk. I walked over and asked, sobbing, “C-c-c-can I have an autism lanyard?”

Assistance will fix it

How sweet are the people at the assistance desk. “Oh honey, of course! What happened? Do you need guidance?” I still murmured that I really didn’t want to ask for help at all, but I also realized that it would be wise to just accept guidance now. So I did. I got a young boy who guided me through the bag check. From there I would travel by myself again, I thought. Fortunately, Team Assistance thought otherwise.

Because my flight was delayed. First it was twenty minutes, then an hour, and then more. My transfer in Paris was only an hour and a half, and from the arrival gate to the departure gate would also take about half an hour, Riemer managed to find out very conveniently at the Charles de Gaulle website. It soon became clear: I was never-ever-ever going to make it. I looked to see what other flights would go from Paris, but it looked like I wouldn’t arrive in Japan until late at night, which would mean I wouldn’t be able to pick up the key to my appartment either. For a moment I thought I could solve it myself. I made my way to the transfer desk and asked, “Can’t you guys put me on the direct flight to Tokyo, which leaves from here this afternoon?” The ground stewardess frowned and asked, “Have you checked in hold luggage? Because then it’s not possible.”

I made my way back to the gate, where two poor KLM employees behind their counter were now being mobbed by a big group of passengers who, like me, would miss their transfers. And then suddenly there were two ladies from assistance. For me. Overcome with stress and gratitude, I cried: “But but I will miss my flight and then I will be there in Paris and that lady (behind the desk) also had another suitcase taken off the flight so it is possible but then they have to hurry up now because otherwise it will be loaded into the plane and and and I really want take the direct flight at 2:35 pm, no matter what it costs and I would like to sit on a folding chair or just economy again but …!” I don’t want anyone to see me this way, but stopping it costs so much. “Please sit down, ma’am. We will talk to KLM for a while.”

They took me to the transfer desk, where I had been sent away half an hour earlier. There were calls, more calls, it was said that the business upgrade I bought might get cancelled, but I said that was fine. And then the lady pressed a button and it was settled. Business class and all. And my bags too. They were already making rounds on the conveyor at Narita when I arrived. “Priority”, the labels said.

They see me rollin’

If this was all they did for me, I would be eternally grateful to the assistance ladies. But they did so much more. One of the ladies told me that she had a daughter with autism herself. Both ladies were genuinely interested and thought it was super cool that my book was three meters away from us in the airport shop. After I rebooked, they asked me if I wanted to ride one of those carts, which usually carry lost or super late people. We went through a customs gate for carts, and they dropped me off at the KLM business lounge. There I also got a mini tour from a KLM employee who had followed the whole ordeal live on my Twitter. For a moment I felt exposed, haha.

When it was time to board, I was being picked up from the lounge again. By a kid who brought me a wheelchair. “I can walk!” I said. He probably wondered why the hell he had to take me to the gate. Well, I could laugh about it. An invisible handicap remains difficult to understand.

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