June 22, 2009

American “Autism”: The Friendly Skies?

Traveling can be challenging.

Enter your neighborhood airport, and you’ll be faced with long security lines, crowded concourses, uncomfortable waiting areas, and once you’ve dealt with that, there’s still the hustle and bustle of trying to get in your seat without being ran over by other passengers seeking to do the same.

Now, if you’re a person with autism, the challenge is dealing with this seemingly chaotic situation without having a meltdown.

Lori Guthrie, a friend and founder of Rainbow Project DFW in Fort Worth, Texas, recently told me about her family’s experience with American Airlines. Like me, she has a son on the spectrum, and traveling is usually quite challenging for him. Dealing with a fast-paced and busy environment can sometimes wreak havoc on his nerves, and she makes every attempt to ensure he is comfortable while traveling.

She spoke highly of her experience with this airline, even in the aftermath of last year’s incident where a mother, Janice Farrell, and her son, Jarrett, who also has autism, were removed from a flight departing Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina because he was reportedly “out of control” and “pitching a raging fit”.

Now, we have all had our share of flights where we are seated next to crying infants and toddlers or belligerent adults who have had one too many cocktails in the airport lounge, but to be removed from a flight entails a different scenario altogether.

The reports depict a situation where the flight crew was sharp with the mother and her son. The flight attendant allegedly kept tugging at Jarrett’s seatbelt making it tighter, thereby, exacerbating the situation and a pilot reportedly came to the cabin and “issued a stern warning”.

Janice was probably in shock and embarrassed by how she and her son were being treated which would explain why I have not read anything about her “going off” on the flight attendant for speaking to her and her son in the manner that has been reported.

The reports also state that Jarrett was “rolling in the aisle” and this behavior can definitely pose a few safety concerns if not dealt with in a timely manner.

Do I believe the child was a danger to others? No, I do not. And there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to change the mindsets of those who “don’t want to be bothered” while traveling amongst children.

Perhaps, the state of our economy has desensitized people in that they have lost their ability to treat people with dignity. With massive layoffs occurring almost daily, employees of companies in the customer service industry appear to be losing their edge. To announce to the cabin that the plane was being turned around because “there was a woman and her child on the plane and the child is uncontrollable” was in extremely poor taste, to say the least.

Some people within the autism community feel Jarrett was removed because he has autism.

I disagree.

Airlines have protocols that must be enforced at all times to ensure the safety of all its passengers, not just those with special needs. If parents do not inform companies of their special needs, how can they expect people to act appropriately? After all, not everyone received “good home training” by mom and dad, and dealing* with a toddler having a temper tantrum is exceedingly different than dealing* with a child with autism having a meltdown.

When I spoke with Lori, she stated the crew was very accommodating to her son’s needs. The staff member, at the check-in counter, was compassionate and empathetic to her situation. Lori and her family were allowed to pre-board so her son could settle in, and he was also permitted to leave his headphones on and read during the safety speech.

American Airlines did more for her family then just give them an extra bag of peanuts or more ice in their beverages. They made them feel welcome, and because of the staff’s actions, her family felt accepted.

With autism diagnosis rates continually on the rise, the news reports of late show us that we still a lot of  public educating ahead of us regarding how one needs to properly interact with the special needs community as a whole.

The crew was definitely out of line in how they handled this situation, and I hope that American Airlines has learned a valuable lesson and are making every effort to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

However, as a parent, you cannot assume everyone will be compassionate to your situation. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to ensure people are fully aware of any and all special needs… particularly if you’re about to travel several hours in a metal tube that will eventually find itself 37,000 feet in the air.

Bottom line: choose the special needs option, if applicable, while making your reservation.  You’re not “advertising” the disability; you’re merely ensuring that people are aware and prepared.

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