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 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.