REAL LIFE

For a decade, Asher Pre­ston had a pho­bia of fly­ing – un­til hyp­nother­a­pist Rus­sell Hem­mings came to his res­cue.

Friday - - Contents -

A Asher was mut­ter­ing to him­self and pac­ing the length of the de­par­ture lounge at Heathrow in Lon­don. Our 15-year-old son was clearly wor­ried, and I kept whis­per­ing to him that every­thing would be fine. We were about to board a flight to Dubai for a hol­i­day. But as the an­nounce­ment to board was made, Asher’s brow fur­rowed deeper, and I could feel his ag­i­ta­tion. ‘I don’t want to fly. I don’t want to fly,’ he kept say­ing, pac­ing faster. ‘Don’t worry Asher,’ I said and gen­tly held his hand. ‘You’ll be safe. There are so many oth­ers who are fly­ing.’ But he didn’t seem to be lis­ten­ing.

When pas­sen­gers started walk­ing to­wards the air­craft bridge, my hus­band Andy Pre­ston and I gen­tly held Asher’s hand and led him to­wards the plane’s door. We were barely half­way there when Asher sud­denly shoved our hands away, turned and be­gan run­ning back to the lounge.

‘Quick, Lubna,’ Andy cried as we both set off af­ter our son. ‘Sorry, so sorry,’ I apol­o­gised to pas­sen­gers as I fought my way past a stream of sur­prised trav­ellers go­ing the op­po­site way. Asher had stopped run­ning but was walk­ing very fast. I ran and caught up with him. ‘I don’t want to fly,’ he kept re­peat­ing. ‘OK, we are not go­ing by plane,’ I said. ‘You can re­lax.’

There were less than 20 min­utes un­til the plane took off but I knew we wouldn’t be fly­ing to­day. Asher was in a ter­ri­ble state, al­most sob­bing and shak­ing. ‘Shh, it’s OK,’ I said, re­as­sur­ing him.

Our only son is autis­tic, and when he turned 13, he in­ex­pli­ca­bly de­vel­oped a pho­bia of fly­ing. In fact this was the third time we had tried to travel with him and each time he had re­fused to fly af­ter we had checked in and were about to board.

We had to fi­nally ac­cept that he had an ex­treme fear of fly­ing. ‘Let’s re­turn home,’ said Andy, 74. ‘We’ll book on one of the boats go­ing to Abu Dhabi.’ What’s ironic was that un­til Asher be­came a teenager, he ac­tu­ally loved planes! We used to take him to watch them fly off and he would be de­lighted. But for some rea­son, when he be­came a teenager, some­thing in­side him changed and his brain just couldn’t come to terms with the il­log­i­cal na­ture of flight. None of the ex­perts we spoke to could iden­tify why this hap­pened.

In his mind, he couldn’t square the idea of be­ing 35,000 feet in the air with feel­ing safe, and this would trig­ger ex­treme fear in him and lead him to a sit­u­a­tion where his anx­i­ety be­came out of con­trol.

He’d shake, pace about and be­come ex­tremely an­gry and it would take a lot of time to calm him down to a point

Not be­ing able to fly as a FAM­ILY had a se­ri­ous IM­PACT on us. We had to take a SHIP from the UK to Abu Dhabi and back, which takes 28 DAYS

where we could rea­son with him. Some ex­perts sug­gested that Asher’s Asperger’s syn­drome could have trig­gered his pho­bia of fly­ing. An autism spec­trum dis­or­der (ASD), Asperger’s pa­tients have dif­fi­culty with so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. They ex­hibit a re­stricted range of in­ter­ests and repet­i­tive be­hav­iours. Com­pared with those af­fected by other forms of ASD, how­ever, those with Asperger’s syn­drome do not have sig­nif­i­cant de­lays or dif­fi­cul­ties in lan­guage or men­tal de­vel­op­ment. Some even demon­strate pre­co­cious vo­cab­u­lary – of­ten in a highly spe­cialised field of in­ter­est.

We first re­alised some­thing might be wrong when Asher was a toddler and was not talk­ing as much as other chil­dren his age. While he could say sev­eral words like mama, dad, toys and play, he would not say much, even when we coaxed him to speak. He didn’t like play­ing with other chil­dren and would throw huge tantrums if, for in­stance, he couldn’t find a par­tic­u­lar toy or if there were too many kids around him.

He also pre­ferred to play the same game over and over and was happy to be alone. Guess­ing that some­thing was not right, we took him for a check-up when he was three, and af­ter sev­eral tests, he was di­ag­nosed with Asperger’s. It was a shock, but that didn’t mean we loved him any less and I de­voted my­self to giv­ing him the best chances.

I was a high-school teacher and de­cided to go back to col­lege and study for a master’s de­gree in Autis­tic Teach­ing. The more I could learn about Asher’s con­di­tion the more I could help him, I felt.

While Asher has some truly im­pres­sive abil­i­ties – es­pe­cially when it comes to mem­o­ris­ing things – he is un­able to read fa­cial ex­pres­sions. For in­stance, he would not be able to guess if a per­son is an­noyed, happy or an­gry just by look­ing at the per­son’s face for emo­tional signs.

His first love is high-per­for­mance sports cars. Asher doesn’t even need to ac­tu­ally see a car to know ex­actly which one it is. He can tell a Fer­rari from a Lam­borgh­ini just by lis­ten­ing to the sound of the en­gine – he can even guess the ex­act model.

He loves swim­ming, danc­ing, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, has even got his pro­vi­sional li­cence and is learn­ing how to drive.

I sup­pose what my hus­band Andy and I want is for the rest of the world to see him as we do; a unique in­di­vid­ual who faces chal­lenges but also has so much to of­fer. We were will­ing to go to any lengths to give him all the sup­port.

How­ever, the only prob­lem was his fear of fly­ing. While it was in­cred­i­bly stress­ful for us to see him in that state, it was also heart­break­ing. We’d plan and book trips for hol­i­days, hope­ful that this time would be dif­fer­ent, but it would turn out the same. He would get ex­tremely ag­i­tated as the time for board­ing would ap­proach and then at the last minute he would run away. Af­ter try­ing three times we re­alised we couldn’t put him through this any more.

Twice we took him to ther­a­pists to get him over his fear of fly­ing. But it did not help. Once, we even en­rolled him in a world fa­mous air­line’s fear of fly­ing pro­gramme, but it was in vain and he re­fused to fly.

Not be­ing able to fly as a fam­ily was hav­ing a se­ri­ous im­pact on our lives. Up un­til Asher was 13 we had hap­pily moved be­tween our houses in Lon­don and the UAE; now ev­ery time we wanted to do this we had to take a ship from Southamp­ton to Abu Dhabi and back, which takes 28 days!

Andy, who runs his own on­line mu­sic busi­ness in the UK, just couldn’t af­ford to spend the time do­ing this, so I had to ac­com­pany Asher to the UAE for a hol­i­day and then take him back by ship again.

Apart from this, life con­tin­ued as usual with Asher at­tend­ing a spe­cial-needs school in Lon­don. We found that while he could cope with pri­mary school with a bit of help at home, in sec­ondary school he needed a greater de­gree of in­ter­ven­tion be­cause he was lag­ging be­hind other chil­dren in some sub­jects.

So we opted to send him to a spe­cial­ist school for kids on the autis­tic spec­trum and other spe­cial needs. He did very well there, fol­low­ing which he went to col­lege in Lon­don to pur­sue a course in busi­ness stud­ies. ‘I love cars, mum,’ he’d say. ‘I want to work with cars.’ Recog­nis­ing his pas­sion, we hoped a de­gree in busi­ness would help him land a job in the au­to­mo­bile industry.

He was do­ing very well in stud­ies and around 18, Asher met a girl named An­nie on­line. An­nie’s fam­ily, who are based in Lahore, Pak­istan, are friends with us, and we were pleased that Asher seemed to be very com­fort­able chat­ting with her on­line, some­times for hours on end.

Her fam­ily too were happy with their re­la­tion­ship. He was so re­laxed and happy while talk­ing to her. But we were wor­ried that be­cause of his fear of fly­ing, he may never be able to meet her and would end up heart­bro­ken. Of course, she could visit him, but the fact that he might never be able to visit her fam­ily, get to know them and see her home town was wor­ry­ing.

Then, last year, I was of­fered a teach­ing job in a main­stream school in the UAE, which I de­cided to take. It was a tough de­ci­sion be­cause I knew it would mean see­ing Asher, who was 23, only dur­ing the hol­i­days when I could fly back. But I felt I could use my skills to help other kids like my son in the UAE.

I moved to Dubai in March 2014 and was set­tling into my job when one day, in Septem­ber the same year, I read about Joe Thomp­son’s story in Fri­day on­line.

Joe was a 16-year-old boy with a re­ally sim­i­lar story to Asher’s; he’d been des­per­ate to get back to the UK from Dubai, but de­spite many at­tempts, his fam­ily were stranded in Al Ain for 18 months be­cause he had a se­vere pho­bia of planes and fly­ing.

The fea­ture went on to say that his par­ents con­tacted a Dubai-based hyp­nother­a­pist, Rus­sell Hem­mings, who had a lot of suc­cess help­ing peo­ple over­come their fears and get their lives back on track. Rus­sell worked with Joe and within just three months, man­aged to help him con­quer his fear of fly­ing. The boy now trav­els reg­u­larly by air.

‘I’m sure he could do the same for Asher,’ I thought. On a whim, I called Rus­sell’s of­fice and ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion to his sec­re­tary. Just a few hours later, Rus­sell rang back. I could tell in­stantly that he to­tally un­der­stood our sit­u­a­tion. ‘I’ve

worked with autis­tic chil­dren be­fore,’ he said, re­as­sur­ing me. ‘And I am fa­mil­iar with the range of be­hav­iours Asher has.’ He didn’t prom­ise any­thing, but said he felt con­fi­dent that he could help Asher.

I im­me­di­ately booked Andy and Asher on a ship to Abu Dhabi and a month later, we were all sit­ting in his of­fice ahead of the first ses­sion.

From the mo­ment I met Rus­sell and saw him in­ter­act­ing with Asher, I felt he would be able to help. I also knew Asher liked Rus­sell, who was very calm, be­cause he did not fid­get and was lis­ten­ing to him earnestly. Rus­sell ex­plained how he was go­ing to help Asher and used lots of vis­ual images of planes and fly­ing to drive home the point that it is safe to fly – this helped a lot be­cause Asher could use his highly de­vel­oped vis­ual learn­ing skills to process the in­for­ma­tion. Rus­sell also avoided eye con­tact, which he knew might make Asher feel threat­ened.

Our son to­tally warmed up to Rus­sell and was will­ing to go along with every­thing that the ex­pert said, even when Rus­sell used hyp­no­sis. He ex­plained to us that he would turn off the fear in Asher’s sub­con­scious.

The hyp­nother­apy tech­niques made Asher feel ut­terly re­laxed and he fully com­plied with his in­struc­tions.

Af­ter just a cou­ple of ses­sions we were so thrilled when we over­heard Asher talk­ing to An­nie on­line, telling her that he would soon be able to fly to see her. In to­tal, Asher had six ses­sions with Rus­sell. Each time he came out of a ses­sion, I could see that his lev­els of anx­i­ety were com­ing down. He seemed much more re­laxed and I think the hyp­nother­apy ses­sions re­ally helped to over­come his fear. This was all re­in­forced through the MP3 that Rus­sell gave him to lis­ten to. It had sooth­ing mu­sic and Rus­sell’s spe­cific re­lax­ation tech­niques, and I think he felt to­tally at ease when he lis­tened to it.

Al­though Andy and I were ex­tremely op­ti­mistic, we still were not 100 per cent sure that Asher would be able to fly. To con­firm that, we had to travel with Asher on a flight.

So at last, one day in De­cem­ber, we de­cided to fly to Pak­istan to­gether so that Asher could fi­nally meet An­nie.

We booked the tick­ets but I was still ner­vous – would he re­ally get on the plane? The last time he had flown was when he was 12 years old. He had a ses­sion with Rus­sell the pre­vi­ous evening and Asher seemed to be to­tally in con­trol and nor­mal. On the morn­ing of the flight Asher was com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the other times we’d pre­pared to travel by plane. He was calm, smil­ing and ac­tu­ally couldn’t wait to get go­ing.

Andy and I kept glanc­ing at each other; we just couldn’t be­lieve the change in him. I kept won­der­ing if it would last, or if he would sud­denly re­vert to be­ing pet­ri­fied, but Asher just kept smil­ing.

‘I’m look­ing for­ward to meet­ing An­nie,’ he said. Rus­sell ar­rived at the air­port and spoke with Asher for about 15 min­utes, then Asher seemed ready to go. I, on the other hand, still couldn’t re­lax en­tirely – there was se­cu­rity, pass­port con­trol and then the gate to go through. But Asher went ahead non­cha­lantly. There was not a hint of fear or stress. He was lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic on his MP3 and was ab­so­lutely calm.

‘I never ex­pected this,’ I whis­pered to Andy. ‘I can’t be­lieve Asher is be­ing so pos­i­tive about all of this with­out a hint of anx­i­ety.’ ‘It’s incredible, isn’t it?’ replied Andy. ‘Let’s not make a big deal of it though un­til we land, let’s just carry on as if this is all nor­mal.’

When the seat belt sign came on be­fore the plane pre­pared to taxi for take off, Asher calmly clicked on his belt, then slipped on his head­phones to lis­ten to the re­lax­ing mu­sic Rus­sell had made for him. ‘I can’t wait to see An­nie,’ he said, turn­ing to me. He looked re­laxed for the take-off, as if he had been do­ing it all his life.

Be­fore we knew it, we were fly­ing. Nat­u­rally, we were on ten­ter­hooks, wait­ing for things to go wrong, but Asher sat through the whole flight lis­ten­ing to Rus­sell on his head­phones and the calm­ing mu­sic, know­ing his dream of meet­ing An­nie for the first time was about to be­come a re­al­ity.

‘Look Asher,’ I whis­pered as we walked through the air­port in Is­lam­abad. All of An­nie’s rel­a­tives were there to greet us, smil­ing and wav­ing. Asher couldn’t stop smil­ing. An­nie, 24, dressed in a lovely pink sal­war kameez, was there as well, beam­ing from ear to ear, and the mo­ment Asher saw her he was clearly thrilled.

There was an in­stant con­nec­tion be­tween them; af­ter all, they had been chat­ting on­line for so long. The two of them spent time to­gether dur­ing that two-week hol­i­day and it was clear that love was blos­som­ing.

How­ever, at the end of the hol­i­day, we had to leave for the UK, and it was with some trep­i­da­tion that we jour­neyed to­wards the air­port, won­der­ing if Asher would re­vert to his old fears. But when he stepped on to the plane with­out ques­tion, found his seat and started lis­ten­ing to Rus­sell’s au­dio, we knew he’d de­vel­oped a new habit!

‘I can’t wait to fly back to see An­nie again, Mum,’ he said.

One year down the line and Asher and An­nie have just got en­gaged. The wed­ding is hap­pen­ing in Pak­istan in De­cem­ber. In fact, he has been on planes twice af­ter that and each time he has been per­fectly nor­mal.

Now Asher isn’t fazed one lit­tle bit by the thought of fly­ing and he’s more con­fi­dent than he’s ever been be­fore. Th­ese days all that we are look­ing for­ward to is his big day in De­cem­ber.

On the MORN­ING of the flight Asher was DIF­FER­ENT to the pre­vi­ous times. He was CALM, smil­ing and couldn’t wait to get GO­ING

We never thought we’d see Asher and An­nie to­gether, but all thanks to hyp­nother­apy, they have just got en­gaged

Ev­ery time we tried to travel with Asher, he would pace about, get ag­i­tated, and then, at the last minute, refuse to board and run away

Even af­ter check­ing in for the flight, we were afraid Asher would re­vert to his fear­ful state, but with Rus­sell’s (left) help he was in con­trol through­out

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