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April 26, 2016

I had another “first” in my life recently. It happened eight weeks ago. My copilot and I had to declare an emergency.

Every pilot friend I have knows what the term “emergency” means. It means things are bad. Real bad.

Airplanes demonstrate their unique and valuable wherewithal only after achieving altitudes and airspeeds which would otherwise be fatal, as Icarus, from Greek mythology, regrettably discovered.

So when something happens during the course of a flight that would seem to threaten this delicate balance between those unseen Newtonian forces that allow flight in the first place, us pilots are taught how to react.

Hopefully, it’s with clear minds and coordinated efforts, honed over time with diligence, focus and alacrity. That’s what good folks pay us for.

If the poop truly strikes the fan and we need help right now, it is possible to summon assistance from others forthwith. One of us will key our radio mic and utter the phrase “Mayday Mayday Mayday” in as clear a voice as we can muster. All other chatter ceases, even in the busiest of airspace. Someone needs help. Someone is in distress. Right now.

And that was us.

It was 8:15 on a Thursday night, light winds, cool. But I wasn’t in a Boeing 777 at 37,000 over the Pacific Ocean on my way to Hawaii. I wasn’t in any other airplane. I wasn’t even flying. I was at home with my wife and family.

Alex has had a tough past several months. The confluence of medicine changes, assistive technology troubles and therapy disruptions caused by unavoidable changes in his daily routine had our little guy careening off the paved surface. Just like when your car veers off the road, things can go south very quickly.

Alex had been having another one of his ‘off’ days. He had just fallen asleep. Kat was in the bathroom taking a shower. I was downstairs in our basement playing with Drew.

Suddenly, a small toy perched too close to the edge of a kitchen shelf toppled off. It landed with a shattering crash on the hardwood floor.

Normally a pretty heavy sleeper, Alex woke up instantly to the commotion. He screamed.

Kat and I both reacted immediately to the sounds. Even though I lept up the stairs two at a time, she got there before me. When Alex has had a rough day, any extra stress—added chore, disrupted routine, loud sound—triggers a deep, plaintive expulsion of emotion. SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! went the sound of his knuckles bouncing off the side of his head. From what we understand, this is a coping mechanism, however desperate, of people with autism. Any sensation—even his own hard fists against the skull, seem to scratch some itch seated way deep in his mind, a perversely soothing reaction. And if that doesn’t do the trick, perhaps just bashing his head into the bare floor or nearest wall will. At this moment, he’s vacillating between all three.

By the time I reach the room, Kat has already grabbed Alex’s protective helmet. He’s had a helmet like this for over 4 years. When he was smaller, it was relatively easy to slip it on over his head and fasten the straps under his chin, much like a bike helmet. But Alex now weighs almost 100 pounds and is built like a fireplug with moves like a competitive wrestler. He is stronger than he has ever been. And even with Kat straddling him like a cowboy riding a bucking bronco, she cannot secure the helmet to his head. I kneel down astride him and help her close the thick plastic clips. He’s trying to bite my fingers as I do so.

But this alone does not stop the rage from inside of him bubbling out in thick, unsettling globs. For along with the slapping of his hands and thrashing of his body, he’s screaming a torrent of atonal yelps we’ve described as his “pterodactyl voice.” Though none of us have ever heard what a prehistoric flying creature might have sounded like, the image of some massive, seriously pissed-off creature with sharp teeth and a sour disposition are presently what we’re up against.

Just wearing the helmet presents a dangerously ironic opportunity for Alex. Although he is now relatively safe from injury, he lacks the ability to mollify that agonizing need to quell whatever inscrutable feeling he has inside his head. The cushion of the helmet dulls any strike he may attempt against his skull—so he tries harder. The helmet can now be used as a battering ram, like a football player not following the rules of sportsmanlike conduct. He can now use it as a weapon. Alex lunges at me headfirst.

“I got him! I got him! Just get out!” I yell to Kat over the din, trying to at least clear the room of any other potential victims. Kat slams the door behind her just as Alex’s helmet thuds into my rib cage like a punch.

Though surprised, I am not winded, nor hurt. I still am much larger than Alex, and craftier too. Using my hands to push him away, I place one hand on his helmet and hold him at arms-length.

I can hear Drew’s young, emphatic voice, pleading from the hallway, “ALEX! AL-EX! PLEASE ALEX! PLEASE! PLEASE STOP YELLING!”

He’s trying to help in any way he can, though as only a skinny 10-year-old, he’s no match for Alex’s strength and aggression. Kat shepherds him away from the noise and into the living room in an attempt to sooth him. Alex has him rattled now, a still-new and distressing reality.

Back in the bedroom, I’m holding Alex at bay with arms fully extended, my hands on each of his shoulders. Snorting out flared nostrils, he’s now trying to kick me. Bare feet fly wildly like maniacal pendulums. With such force he loses his balance. I take advantage of this and allow him to fall butt first onto his bed. A simple twin size mattress, it rests directly on the floor, partially slid into the room’s small closet, doors removed. This creates a small, slightly enclosed space for Alex to curl up in and fall asleep—normally, that is. Not tonight, not now. He continues to squirm and fight me, fists clenched and coming my way.

Blocking the blows is relatively easy, as their arc is compact and clearly telegraphed. He’s so enraged that any sense of dexterity or cunning is completely absent. But there’s no change in his temperament. Alex refuses to settle down.

“C’mon Alex…calm hands…calm hands! Easy! EASY!” I exclaim, trying to employ words and phrases that he has responded to in the past. All in a voice that belies my own worrisome emotion. I’m trying to be calm too. But nothing’s working. Nothing de-escalates. He continues to wail and rage. His body writhes beneath mine. He’s in agony.

By now I’m sweating. My pulse throbs in my temples. I’m breathing fast. I hear Kat call from behind the door.

“Dave? Are you okay?” she asks. “Drew’s really upset.”

I can hear Drew whimpering outside the door. They can both tell I’m struggling.

Behind the helmet’s clear plastic faceguard, Alex’s face is red and wet with sweat and saliva. He is literally spitting mad. It’s taking all my effort just to keep him on the soft mattress. As a last resort, I lay my chest upon his, like a wrestler pinning an opponent. Alex responds to my weight in the only way he can—thrashing his helmet against my head, crushing my left ear. Additionally, he apparently has enough air in his lungs to let out a bloodcurdling scream.


I fly for a living. I’m often gone for many days in a row. In what few brain cells I have that is not presently focused on Alex and how I can contain him, I think to myself what Kat and Drew would do if I wasn’t here to help. This could have easily happened with me half a world away.

It’s in that moment that I realize this situation is critical. An emergency. We need assistance, right now. I press my hands hard against Alex’s shoulder joints and extend my arms, locking him fast against the bed.

“Kat!” I yell to make sure she hears me. “Call 9-1-1.”


She doesn’t question me, doesn’t hesitate. A few seconds later I hear her voice speaking in the kitchen.

“Yes…uh, our son has autism. He cannot speak… We can’t control him any longer.”

My heart sinks as I process what I’ve just done.

“Hold it together, dude…hold it together,” is all I can say. My voice practically a whisper under my breath. I realize I’m talking to myself as much as I’m talking to Alex.

We live less than a mile away from the nearest fire station, so the ambulance arrives in what seems like seconds. A fire truck pulls up behind, red and white lights slicing through the night on our quiet side street. Alex’s service animal Merrows leaps off the sofa and runs to the window facing the driveway. She erupts in a fusillade of barks and woofs. She was shadowing Kat and Drew in her own attempt at soothing—if not Alex—anyone.

I hear the front door open and two EMTs enter our house. Stunned and overwhelmed by all the commotion he sees plainly with his eyes, Drew begins to cry. We’ve never had to call the paramedics before. Trying to keep the hallway clear, Kat sends Drew into his own bedroom, with Merrows to assist. I hear him sobbing hysterically. I wish I could get up and sooth him, too, but I’m busy trying to do the same for Alex. He’s the one that’s the danger to himself and others right now.

Both EMTs find their way to Alex’s bedroom. They are tall, thin and surprisingly youthful looking—no older than 25. They wear identical dark blue jumpsuits. “What’s going on?” one of them asks simply.

Still straddling Alex with my hands on his shoulders, I swallow to clear my throat, then try to explain the situation as quickly and succinctly as I can. “Alex has autism. He is also non-verbal…” I go on to add that he has been through an eventful past few weeks with issues at school and rocky reactions to prescription medicine changes.

“And until only a few minutes ago, I have never seen him try to lash out and try to hurt me with such willfulness,” I state ruefully. “So, it’s bad.”

I conclude with, “It’s all I can do just to hold him down.”

One of the EMTs squats down next to me and attempts to converse with Alex. “You not feeling so good tonight, buddy? You having a bad night?”
Alex reacts to this strange man with a voice he’s never heard before with a glare and an atonal moan.

“Aieee!” he exhorts in a voice entirely too loud for the EMT, and for everyone else in the room for that matter.

I hear the front door open again. Merrows reacts with a chorus of barks from where she stands behind Drew’s bedroom door just a couple of feet away. A few seconds later, two police officers enter Alex’s tiny room. Thick bulletproof vests and walkie-talkies strapped to their chest make them appear much more like linebackers than public servants. Nonetheless, they are polite and professional.

“How long has he been acting this way?” “Does he have any allergies?” “Is he tired?” “What would happen if he takes off the helmet?” “Is it true he cannot speak at all?” On and on the questions keep coming.

Soon enough, the first responders in the room reach a simple conclusion.

“Let’s bring him in. Can you stop holding him?” asks one of the EMTs.

I react without an educated answer. “Maybe, but I don’t think he’s gonna stand still. He’s stronger than he looks.”

By now, Kat has entered the room. “You’re gonna need to restrain him.”

It’s evident that there is no crime scene here, so the police step aside to let the EMT staff do their job. A gurney is wheeled in and moved next to Alex, still pinned to the mattress by Yours Truly.

It takes both EMTs, assisted by Kat and myself, to lift him and place him on the stretcher. Even shackling his hands into the wrist restraints takes effort.

I watch him wiggle and cry as he’s secured. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life,” I mutter ruefully to the nearest police officer. Now it’s my turn to cry.

Alex is still wearing his helmet. Sensing his fight may be over for the evening, he finally falls silent for more than a minute in a row. “It’s okay, pal. We’re just taking you to see the doctor tonight…” I try to be soothing myself. I don’t think I’m doing a good job.

As Alex is wheeled out of his room on the stretcher, Drew calls out to me from the small gap in his doorway.

“Are you okay, Daddy? I heard Alex get so upset. Why can’t he stop whining?” Drew’s concern for me and his mom are real and extremely heartening. We just don’t have many good, concrete answers for him. God, I wish I did.

“Yes, Drew…I’m fine.” I don’t know why, but I lie. Really, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I am pretty far from fine.

“Will Alex be okay? Is he gonna ever come home?” Drew is choking back tears.

Kat answers him before I can. “Absolutely. These nice people are just taking him to the hospital to get checked out and to cool off a little.” Drew whimpers again. We have not convinced him.

I grab my coat and phone, then head out the door for my first ambulance ride. Alex’s gurney is carefully lifted into place inside, then locked in place. After the double doors are closed, I climb into the cab of the ambulance. (To be continued.)

From → Alex, Autism, Family Stuff

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