Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hey, United! Think there might have been a better way?

So have you heard the one about United Airlines and the autistic 15 year old girl and her family they kicked off a plane this week? It’s pretty crazy, really the amount of ignorance about autism that exists today—even after all the blue lights last month to make people “aware” of autism.

Because her daughter would not eat any of the food brought on-board with the family, the mother had the irrational thought that perhaps the flight attendant (who we constantly hear are there for our "safety and comfort") would actually act like a reasonable human being and try to be helpful. Apparently the mom could not persuade the flight attendant to sell her a hot meal for her child—this remarkable privilege is for First Class passengers ONLY!--and after a half hour or so of discussion while her daughter was becoming more anxious, the mom made a comment along the lines that the flight attendant would help once her child melted down and possibly scratched someone.
This is what all the fuss was about...United can be proud their flight attendant held out til the bitter end.
The flight attendant acquiesced but apparently the mom in her desperation to keep her child calm and comfortable did not realize just how much some people enjoy lording their "power” over others. The flight attendant’s nose was out of joint--this mom had asked for a meal that she was NOT ENTITLED TO, after all--and went to the captain and portrayed this child, by now sitting calmly and watching a video as a threat to the safety of the other passengers.

The pilot, without even checking personally on the situation, felt “uncomfortable” enough to make an emergency landing, and announced to the passengers that there was a person on board with “behavioral issues”. The family of four was escorted off by police and rebooked on a Delta flight.

In a statement, United said its "crew made the best decision for the safety and comfort of all of our customers and elected to divert to Salt Lake City after the situation became disruptive."

The family being escorted off the flight by police. Overreact much, United?

So an autistic child crying or making noises is apparently disruptive to other passengers, or most likely primarily to a callous flight attendant. This begs the question of crying infants and for that matter, obnoxious adults. I’ve been on flights where babies or toddlers cried nearly the entire trip, or rowdy tourists were loudly talking and singing for much of the trip. I live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where there’s no such thing as a short flight and I've found myself "disrupted". I do believe a water landing could be in order...
"I'm going to HA-WAI-EEEEEE!!"
In an interview with a local news outlet, passenger Marilyn Hedlund said, “She wasn't put off the plane because she had autism, she was put off the plane because she was maybe proposing some kind of a threat, to (about) 170 other people at 36,000 feet, which doesn't make anyone feel safe.” 

“What if she got crazy and got up and opened an exit door at 36,000 feet?”

Gee, Marilyn—what kind of threat do you think she was "proposing"? How about if you “got crazy” and decided to "propose" a threat? An autistic child is certainly no more likely to jump out of their seat to try to open the cabin door than any other passenger.

Why do media outlets give ignorant, ill-informed and overall stupid people like Marilyn Hedlund any print space? Seriously—why would a news outlet think to interview some dingbat to ask her opinion about something she clearly has zero knowledge of? Perhaps we should query Marilyn to see what she thinks of US foreign policy in the Middle East.
"I didn't feel safe!!", Marilyn Hedlund, Autism Expert?
What is truly disheartening is seeing the comments from so many people who think because the family is considering filing a lawsuit against United Airlines that this is really about money, oh and besides, the mother should have prepared for every possible eventuality. Of the negative comments, these are some of the kinder remarks I've seen. FYI--there are not microwave ovens on airplanes and I’m here to tell you that no matter how much you plan, the best-laid plans are no match for real life.

I think back to my recent experience on Delta Airlines. When I arrived at the airport I informed the agent at the gate that I was traveling with a severely autistic child. They could not have been nicer.

In fact, the agent said to me, “We’ve just recently had training about autism. Just let us know how we can make this experience easier for you.”

Well, thank you!!

We flew from Honolulu to Atlanta and on to Baltimore without incident. Our return to Hawaii was another matter.

We were supposed to connect in Salt Lake City to fly home to Honolulu. Unfortunately, after boarding our connection, the plane developed mechanical difficulties prior to take-off. After being in the airport for about 4 – 5 hours, I realized Ryan would not be able to take much more. I approached the Delta agent, and he immediately reserved a hotel room for us at airline expense and booked us on a flight for the following day.

Take note, United Airlines—a hotel room, meal vouchers and shuttles to and from the airport posed considerably more expense to Delta than you giving up a meal to an autistic child, not to mention the expense of the so-called “emergency landing”. And Delta didn’t even bat an eye.
I will be flying Delta Airlines in the future.
But getting to the part of the story where no matter how hard you try, you just can’t be prepared for everything…unfortunately, Delta was not able to get our luggage off the airplane. For the average family, this would mean the inconvenience of not having clean underwear.

For us, it meant much of the food I had for Ryan was packed in a suitcase and he suffers from dozens of food allergies across all major food groups. Because of the probability of anaphylactic reactions, I can't just pick up a meal anywhere and the prepared foods I had brought for him for what was supposed to be 14 hours of travel were eaten on the plane, in the airport and in our hotel room on our 46 hour trek home. 

By lunchtime the following day, Ryan had eaten nearly all the food I had for him. All I had left were some allergen-free pretzels and two packs of nori (seaweed). I was able to get a plain chicken breast at the hotel restaurant right before leaving for the airport. We were rebooked on a connecting flight to LA, and then on to Honolulu.

By the time we boarded in LA, Ryan had eaten his nori and was hungry and tired and simply did not understand why he couldn’t eat. Adding to that, we’d crossed three time zones by this point with three more to go. After take-off, the flight attendant asked how she could help—as I was asked on every flight—and I had a steady stream of Coke coming in an effort to keep him calm. Coke is normally a very special and rare treat for Ryan, but one that ultimately doesn’t contribute to good behavior with its high-sugar and chemical content. At this point I was desperate to keep him calm and quiet and not disrupt my fellow passengers. Despite the soft drink intervention, a couple of hours after take-off Ryan was melting down and it was not pretty.

Delta had been kind enough to book the bulkhead for us at no additional cost, possibly realizing that autistic children will often kick the seat in front of them, so at least I didn’t have to deal with a passenger in front of us having their seat jerked about. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. I really don’t. However, the preferential seating didn’t spare me from the hostile looks and eye rolls from other passengers who wanted me to know that my child is an incorrigible brat and my parenting skills are sorely lacking.

Fortunately, although Ryan did meltdown and was scratching and head butting me, no one felt “threatened” or that he might try to open the cabin door. Really, Marilyn? I did see the flight attendant speak quietly to the passengers adjacent to me, and perhaps she explained the situation with Ryan because there were no issues.

Or perhaps I was simply lucky that there was no place for an emergency landing over the Pacific Ocean, but I truly believe whatever training Delta provided their flight and ground crews with was beneficial.

Hawaii--right in the middle of the North Pacific. Nothing around but open ocean...

This is the kind of autism awareness families want. I’m not looking for free stuff or people to bend over backwards. A simple act of human kindness goes a very long way. Thank you Delta Airlines. You have earned my loyalty.

To the general public I say, “Now that the blue lights have made you aware of autism, how about a little compassion and understanding for those who need it? Don’t begrudge the few perceived perks received by those who need them.”

You may need them yourself someday.


  1. Asperger’s disorder is considered to be in autism spectrum. This means that it is a kind of autism, differentiating only by its severity or rather its lack of severity. Famous people with aspergers are on the high functioning end of autism spectrum.

    1. Thanks for reading, Roberto and you are certainly correct. Ryan does not have Aspergers, though and is non-verbal other than some word approximations. He is also very smart, adorable, funny and loving. He's a great kid with a lot of challenges.

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