Saturday, June 28, 2008

News: "Autistic toddler kicked off airplane"

You may have seen this story in the news the other day - a mother and her 2-year-old toddler, who has autism, were removed from a plane.

My first reaction when I heard about this, aside from feeling bad for this mother and her son, was that this is the reason we don't fly. With three autistic children, two of whom are very hyperactive and all three easily overstimulated, I'd be terrified to take them anywhere near an airport. The noisy crowds alone would be too much - add in the long lines, waiting in the terminal, and the fact that pretty much everything about the airport is outside their normal routine, and it would be a recipe for disaster. I'm pretty sure we wouldn't even make it past security.

That being said though, there are situations where driving is not an option, either due to distance or time / urgency. I don't know why the mother and son were flying, other than to see family, but from what I have read she had flown before without incident so she would have had a reasonable expectation to be able to do so again on this flight.

Personally, when I read that their flight had been delayed 11 hours I was extremely impressed that the little boy had done so well up to that point. The airport routine is stressful for anyone (it's stressful for me and I'm an adult), much less a 2-yr-old, especially a 2-yr-old with autism. And this little boy managed to hold it together through the whole thing, including having to wait in the terminal for ELEVEN HOURS, and through the whole boarding process. Autism or not, any 2-yr-old (not to mention older kids and adults) would have been reaching the limits of their patience by then. It's no wonder he was agitated when he got on the plane. His mother would most likely have been able to help him cope, had the flight attendant not intervened and antagonized both the boy (I would have been livid!) and his mother - tugging on his seatbelt (which was probably painful to him due to sensory issues) and yelling at both him and his mother. The result was a full-blown meltdown.

What I really want to write about though, is not the pilot's decision to turn the plane around (although I wonder why he felt it necessary to add insult to injury by announcing to the entire plane that they were returning because of a woman and her "uncontrollable child" - did he really think there was anyone on that plane who couldn't hear what was going on??). What is more disturbing to me about this whole thing, is many of the comments I have read in response to the story.

Sadly, I am not surprised by the ignorance. But I am appalled at not only the lack of compassion but outright mean-spiritedness and hurtful nature of the comments. That's not to say there weren't sympathetic and kind comments, there were. There were some neutral ones too. But the rude and spiteful ones were many. There was intense anger and callousness directed at not only those with autism, but children in general, and the entire special needs community. I finally had to stop reading them. I have to wonder if these people are so cruel in person, or if the anonymity of the internet has unleashed a new level of maliciousness. Either way, it is very disheartening.

In many of these comments, the mother was referred to as "unfit" and "useless," and I'm not even going to repeat what some people called the little boy. Some people seem to think that the price of a plane ticket should entitle them to a quiet, undisturbed flight. Anyone who has ever flown knows that is ridiculous. Some people said if the mother just "smacked him" that would solve everything. There was disdain for the autism diagnosis, with people claiming that no one was autistic when they were kids (I beg to differ but that's another topic), as well as one who even suggested that maybe the child was autistic because his parents didn't talk to him enough. Give me a break.

Aside from that there were the usual contradictory comments that "if you can't control your child, keep him home." Well, if we keep them home, how will we ever teach them how to behave in public? And don't get me started on "controlling your children." No one controls their child. Children who do not have autism or other neurological issues are hard-wired to learn action-consequence and to try to please their parents. They are hard-wired to care what people around them think of them and to behave as others do. Children with autism are wired differently. That is not to say they can't learn how to behave appropriately but it takes time. The little boy in question is only two. My kids were 4-5 years old before we got to the point where there were more good outings than not-so-good. At age 2, pretty much everywhere we tried to go led to overstimulation and a double-meltdown.

People with autism often have sensory issues also. This means that the sensory input (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) that most people tune out or even find pleasant, can be stressful or even downright painful to someone with autism. At age 2, all children are still developing their communication / social skills and learning appropriate responses. Delay in communication / social development is one of the hallmarks of autism, so is it any wonder that an autistic child would have difficulty responding "appropriately" when their system is overloaded with sensory input and they are stressed out?

Looking at this in the larger context of other recent news stories, it appears there is a lot of discrimination going on towards people with autism. For example, a 5-yr-old boy with Asperger's was recently
voted out of his classroom at the direction of his teacher. I can't even imagine the emotional harm done to that child, as well as to the children who were forced to participate. A 13-yr-old boy with severe autism was banned from attending church. Banned from church?! Isn't that the one place where everyone is supposed to feel accepted? At one school, all of the special needs students were left out of the yearbook.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that these kinds of things have been going on for a long time, but are only recently garnering widespread focus.

It is painfully obvious to me that our society has a long way to go in terms of autism acceptance. With the statistics being 1 in 150 children having autism, and 1 in 94 boys, society has no choice but to move in that direction. All I can say is I'm grateful for the people in our life and our sons' lives who are accepting. I'm grateful that my sons are MINE and were not born to any of the ignorant folks who would abuse them before they'd recognize that what they needed was understanding and a little help. I'm grateful for teachers that support them, and advocate for them when they are at school when we can't be there. As for me, I'll keep doing my part to promote autism awareness and acceptance with those I come into contact with!


HRH on June 28, 2008 at 11:00 PM said...

No child should be expected to behave after an 11 hour delay. I can't imagine the adults were behaving well either. That is just sad.

My oldest has a lot of sensory issues which go hand in hand with a lot of fears and serious disruptions if schedules aren't followed. I just don't get why we can't accept limitations in kids. They are KIDS! They need help! What is with society trying to keep everyone sitting down and quiet. This is one of the reasons why I home school (part time). Boys have a hard time sitting still. period. even when they don't have the additional challenge of diagnosis.

Genevieve Hinson on June 29, 2008 at 1:31 PM said...

Great post - linked to it from my blog.

Kristen Andrews on June 29, 2008 at 8:10 PM said...

that is absurd no child or adult behaves too well on a 11 hr delay! I would go nuts w/ that kind of delay.

Michelle McFarland-McDaniels on July 15, 2008 at 2:30 AM said...

You are so right about how far society has to come to get to a point of autism acceptance. I am appalled not only by the way the mom and her son were treated by airline employees, but also by the hostility that has been directed toward them in the blogosphere. It is a shame that some people can treat others who deserve compassion with such cruelty and callousness.


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I'm a mom of three boys on the autism spectrum, 11-yr-old identical twins and a 7-yr-old. My husband is a SAHD.


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