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Was “Fear of Autism” the Issue?

Or a situation handled poorly by mother and flight attendant?

Was "Fear of Autism" the Issue? Or a situation handled poorly by mother and flight attendant?

A few days ago I saw a video of a family being escorted off a plane by police. The title of the video was ”Fear of Autism” Family Removed from United Airlines Flight. I really felt for the family; it can’t have been nice to be asked to leave and then to have other passengers filming the scene. This is the original video that I watched:

I wanted to know what had happened. Why would people have been scared of an autistic child? So I found this news report with an interview with the mother, Dr Deborah Beegle. She explains that there was an issue with the flight providing a hot meal, which is what Juliette, her daughter needed. After much discussion with the flight crew about purchasing a hot meal from first class, she eventually managed to get one and her daughter was fine after that. But, the flight made an unscheduled stop and the family was asked to leave the flight. I could really feel for the mother and understand her frustration at what she feels is discrimination against her child, however as I was watching the interview, there is a statement that the mother makes which made me think what she said to the flight attendant may have been more of an issue than her child’s autism. Take a look at the video and see what you think, the statement is at around 02:14.

I am an ME sufferer and so I can totally relate to how damaging and hurtful the ignorance of society can be to people with illnesses that are so misunderstood. We get called lazy, like we have a choice not to be so debilitated, and in the same way these poor autistic children get called spoilt brats when they have no choice in the way that they react and respond to situations. I have people within my extended family who are autistic and my sister has also worked extensively with autistic children and their families. These kids are not playing up, but rather some like Juliette, cannot verbalise agitation from hunger and they have specific dietary requirements. I looked through the comments section of online news articles about this incident and I was pretty disgusted by some of the awful comments made about the child and about how she is just a spoilt brat. I totally disagree with those kinds of statements.

However, having said all that, I also don’t think the issue here is the child but rather her mother and the flight attendant. Before everyone jumps down my throat for being unkind, I would like to explain why I think this. The mother has posted her own account of the incident on Facebook and I’m basing the following opinions on her statement.

The Mother’s Mistake

I am an adult with more than one chronic illness and I have special dietary requirements. More embarrassingly, I can also have urgent toilet needs and I need to eat at specific times. Any trip that I make, and I mean any, from a short trip to another part of the city to longer car journeys and flights, has to be carefully planned. The outbound flights are usually easier because I have everything I need at home, so it is easy enough to pack up a meal or two. The inbound flights are much harder because it may not be so easy to get everything that is needed. The Beegle family was on their way back from a Disney vacation, so I can understand it may not have been so easy for them to have everything that Juliette needed. Juliette cannot make the kinds of decisions and choices that I can, but her mother who is responsible for her care sure can. This is what she had to say:

“ My family were on our way home from Disney World. I asked the flight attendant if she had any hot food (Juliette will not eat cold food and had refused her dinner prior to the flight). We had a back pack of snacks but she did not want what we had. The attendant sold me chicken sandwich but it was not hot and Juliette would not eat. The flight attendant said that is all we have. I asked if there was some hot food in First Class. It was a very long flight and I wanted her to get something in her system. The flight attendant went to ask and a male flight attendant in First Class. He came back to tell me that they could not serve the hot food from First Class because we were in economy. I offered to buy the rice they had. He said no. For 40 minutes, I kept trying to think of something that they had that she would eat. He told me no every time. I finally, told him that I am platinum on United thinking he might help. He said No. I again asked if he could make an exception for our daughter who faces autism. He said, no he could not give her the rice from first class. I asked if I could get some chips or something salty for her. He said they had no chips. Juliette was beginning to cry. Frustrated I said, after she has a melt down and tries to scratch in frustration, will you help her then? He said he would see what he could do. He came back scowled at me and gave her a hot meal. I thanked him and offered to pay for it. He did not answer and went back to First Class. i>

I understand that it can’t be easy to always predict how Juliette will react or what she will need, but the mother says herself that her daughter had refused dinner prior to the flight. Surely at that point she would have known that at some point during the flight her daughter was going to feel hungry and would probably need something hot. Also, she has a back pack full of snacks, but not a bag of chips? I swear to you I am not trying to pick on the mother, but I do feel she needs to take some responsibility for not being better prepared. But hey, she’s human, and it happens, especially when you’re rushing about taking care of a child and trying to catch a flight, so she was unable to buy something that she could have asked the cabin crew to warm up for her. Also, I think she was getting frustrated with the lack of assistance from the flight attendant, and that is understandable too as I do think he could have done more to resolve the issue, so I believe she chose the wrong words when she said “after she has a melt down and tries to scratch in frustration, will you help her then?”. Now she probably meant that her daughter would scratch herself rather than scratch anyone around her, but what Dr Beegle effectively did with this statement is let the flight attendant know that her daughter could get violent if she does not get what she needs. The flight attendant may know zero about autism, but he has to trust that this mother knows her daughter.

United Airlines Flight Crew

You have got to believe that there has to have been a better way for the cabin crew to have dealt with this situation. Cabin crew are like people in any line of work; you’ll get some that are helpful and just brilliant at their jobs and others that have become jaded and annoyed with the troublesome customers/passengers. I have needed help with wheelchairs and walking aids due to my limited mobility and in the same trip I was brought to tears by the kindness of cabin crew members as well as the complete callous lack of care I received in the same trip. We don’t know the flight attendant’s side of the encounter as he hasn’t written a Facebook post as far as I can tell. But there has to have been a better way for him to have dealt with the mother of an autistic child. You get the impression (from her statement admittedly) that her request for a first class meal is what got his back up. The pilot’s decision to make the unscheduled stop and offload the family has to have been based on the flight attendant’s account of the incident. Also, the mother says Juliette ate and was watching Pocahontas when we heard the flight attendant say, “We will be making an unexpected landing in Salt Lake due to a passenger in the back having issues.” We were in the front of the plane and wondering what was going on. The plane landed and the flight attendant asked if there was a medical doctor on board. A man came forward two rows in front of us. The man there said, “I am fine. I do not need a doctor.” The door opened and two paramedics came to the man two rows ahead of us. He said again said he was fine. The paramedics left him and came to my row and said, “Everything okay here?” Confused, I said, “yes.” The paramedic asked if Juliette was okay. I said, “she’s fine.” Did she scratch someone? Puzzled I said, “no.” So did someone else need a doctor on the flight? Had there been a report that a passenger had been scratched?

The Need for More Awareness

I agree with Deborah Beegle; there does need to be more awareness among flight attendants on how to deal with families that have members who have special medical requirements. In A Letter to JetBlue From the Mom of a Child With Autism a mother is so grateful for the help and attention they received during a flight. United Airlines may want to pay attention. Someone reading this may wonder why I went to so much effort to point fingers at a mother doing her best to care for her autistic child and a flight attendant. I assure you, that is not my intention. Rather, I feel that while it is important to raise awareness about illnesses and conditions that are so misunderstood and that affect a substantial number of people, cases like this can actual bring negative attention to the cause. The mother may have ten pages of statements saying Juliette was not a threat to anyone, but any lawsuit she brings about may show that it was her own behaviour in the situation that escalated the problem rather than anything her daughter did. When you make the whole thing about autism, rather than about some really bad communication between a passenger and a flight attendant, it may draw at people’s heart strings, but it is not accurate and you actually risk further discrimination and misunderstanding. A quick look at the comments left on reports of this case, even though the press has largely been sympathetic to the mother, illustrates my point, especially in the comments from other parents of autistic children who do not agree with Deborah Beegle’s actions. In fact there are wars being fought in the comments sections of various sites that have reported this story with people disapproving of the mother’s actions and others accusing them of being heartless. Many said they would never fly with United Airlines, while others said they would definitely fly with United now as they take security so seriously.

So what do you think? Whatever your views, please be nice and understand the viewpoints of others.

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