Flying with the boy who loves Thunderbirds

Charlie Ussher loves the TV animation show Thunderbirds so much that he fantasises that a plane he is travelling in will explode and Virgil Tracy will come to the rescue in Thunderbird 2.

But talking about aircraft exploding and bombs going off is a high-risk activity when you are travelling by plane, and high stress for Charlie’s parents Lisa and Mark.

Last year the family flew to Australia’s Sunshine Coast to visit Charlie’s grandfather and the theme parks. Lisa says she had been talking about the trip to see her Dad for three or four years, but they had to wait for 11-year-old Charlie to get over his preoccupation with explosions and other issues relating to his autism. “His whole world is space and aircraft and Thunderbirds,” Lisa says.

“We were concerned that he would have a meltdown on the plane. But we were mainly concerned that because of his love of Thunderbirds, he wanted our plane to blow up so the Thunderbirds would come and rescue us.”

But after talking to a lot of people about their travel strategies and arming themselves with rescue lollies to be eaten when Charlie felt scared, they headed to Australia in July. They booked the same airline both ways, and the same seats, because Charlie always likes to follow the same path home.

Charlie also tends to run when he is stressed, and at Brisbane Airport Lisa and Mark faced their biggest hurdle. An immigration officer decided that Charlie should be the first to go through the face scanner at passport control. Lisa says they tried to explain that either she or Mark should go first in case Charlie decided to run. But the officer wouldn’t budge. In the end Charlie’s sister Betsy, aged seven, went first and it was her job to manage her brother. Lisa says they told Betsy that if Charlie ran, she was to run with him.

Mark says he got to the point where he decided that if Charlie ran, the airport would have to handle it. “I was pretty angry.”

Lisa says as it turned out “both of them were standing there waiting for us”.

In September last year Melbourne Airport launched a Hidden Disability Programme at its international terminal to support travellers needing special assistance. It was the first Australian airport to introduce the programme for travellers with autism, anxiety issues, mental health conditions, dementia, and visual and hearing impairments. Travellers can request a lanyard to wear through the airport from check-in to departure to allow airport staff to recognise that they may need extra help.

A sensory map is available, which identifies high-sensory and low-sensory areas. This is to help travellers prepare for additional noise and crowded areas and to find quieter areas.

The airport website provides ‘social stories’ to walk passengers through the international departures and international arrivals processes in an easy-to-understand format. Melbourne Airport staff will all be trained in the Hidden Disability Programme.

Lisa says the Hidden Disability Programme at Melbourne Airport is good news and would have been very helpful for the family.


Photo caption: Charlie and Betsy Ussher and Bugs Bunny at Warner Bros. Movie World on Queensland’s Gold Coast.


This story was published in Community Moves. The magazine is posted free to all IHC members.

Read the full issue of Community Moves online here.