Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Special needs parenting: When your kid bugs people

A scene from our flight to Florida (picture a completely filled plane):

Max is in the window seat, Dave is next to him, then Sabrina; I am in the row across from them. Suddenly, I notice that Max is repeatedly and rhythmically kicking the seat in front of him. Hard. Kick, kick, kick, kick. Kick, kick, kick, kick.

Max likes to do this sort of thing when given the right kicking opportunity. He has this little table in his room and one of his favorite activities is to sit there, lift his knees and bang it up and down. I think he just likes the the feel of it. "It's totally normal," said our ├╝ber-sane pediatric neurologist, when I asked. "Haven't you ever seen a boy sitting on a bench and jiggling his foot?" I suspect that Max also gets a kick out of being naughty; as I've noted, he is no angel, like any other kid his age.

Only now we're on a plane. The three people in the row in front have all turned around to see what is going on; they don't notice me observing them. The elderly guy in the end seat is glaring at him.

Dave is sitting there, earplugs in, staring at the TV screen. Oblivious.

Kick, kick, kick, kick.

"Dave," I say.

No response.

"Sabrina, can you poke Daddy for me?" I ask.

She does and when Dave looks up from his TV coma I whisper, "Dave, Max is kicking the seat and it's annoying the people in front of him. Can you get him to stop?!"

Dave shrugs his shoulders. Meaning, what's so wrong (see: Mushball Dave), I'm not sure how to help, and I don't particularly care if it's bugging them.

But I care. Because I'm one of those people who minds having her seat kicked—on planes, in movie theaters, when I'm attending the Academy Awards (OK, not that)—and I know how irksome it feels. I also don't think Max should get away with it. I wouldn't let Sabrina disturb people like that; why should I let Max? I want him to understand what it means to behave yourself in public.

"Talk with him," I tell Dave.

Kick, kick, kick, kick.

"Try holding his legs down," I say.

Max wails.

The elderly guy summons the flight attendant. He gestures at Max and says something to her; she nods and walks way. I'm not sure what her plan is; maybe she falls into the "What's the big deal?" camp.

Kick, kick, kick, kick.

"DAVE!" I hiss-whisper. "Do something! Distract him!"

Dave gives Max his iPhone.


Kick, kick, kick, kick.

I am tempted to take Max for a walk only I've learned that can be a dangerous thing, as Max then refuses to sit down again and also has a tendency of barreling into first class where, alas, they do not treat me to a glass to champagne as I scurry after him.

The woman in front of Max turns around. "Here," she says, kindly, and hands back a pad of paper and a pencil.

That helps.

[Repeat scene during return flight home, except nobody reports him and he finally falls asleep.]

Obviously, Dave and I need to do a better job of packing stuff that will better occupy Max (and making sure the iPad is charged, as it ran out of juice). We also need to do a better job of agreeing about Max's public behavior.

Have you been in recent situations in which your child has annoyed others? How have you dealt with it? How has your significant other dealt with it?!



  1. Ha ha ha, Ellen! I know I shouldn't laugh! Actually Faith has the same bad habit, while it rarely bothers me in the car, it annoys the crap out if my dad! And now with our new van, she sits behind me and does it to me only my seat bangs forward every time! LOL,!

  2. With our two sets of twins we have had people request to move away from us on the plane. I try not to let it bug me too much. I do stock the kids' backpacks and try my best to keep them happy but I can't control every behavior or the reactions people have. My husband and I generally agree on public behavior. Though he does get motion-sick on planes so I'm the one parent clown there.

  3. After a few flights of fighting with my son not to kick, I gave up and made sure that when we selected seats, we split up so that my husband or I was always sitting in front of him. I'd rather put up with the kicking myself than worry about him annoying other people. He also had a thing about compulsively opening and closing the tray table, and I found that taping a picture over the latch solved that problem. Out of sight, out of mind.

  4. Thanks for a fun and at the same time reflective post!
    I have friends with disabilities with whom I travel or hang out with, and we have had similar experiences together. I could see myself at church, movies, theater and airplanes... lots of complicated social settings!

    I agree that the social behavior expected in any setting should be expected the same for everyone, instead of promoting a "let him/her be" culture that "tolerates" disability but does not give an equal position.

    As you say, toys or distracting games can be useful, the best part of them is that they already teach an accepted social behavior without scolding, holding or else.

    Hugs to Max from a fan =)

  5. Ah, I forgot to mention that Max does this in the car all the time, but he sits behind Dave who doesn't care. And also, that he loves banging the tray table!

    I usually could care less about what people think, but in this case, I happen to understand how annoying it can be. He was doing it so hard every single person in the next row felt it!

    Terri, that's a smart idea, cool that you can swing the seating arrangements. By the time we book, we're usually lucky if we can get seats on the same PLANE.

  6. We've been flying cross country since my son was 3months old. Bulkhead seats. If you can. Otherwise, lots of talking and pretend practice ahead of time is the formula that gets us through a lot of sticky situations.

  7. Sarah and Zoe did this and I was a nervous wreck the entire flight thinking it was awful. On the next flight, when I checked in I explained my predicament of flying alone with a toddler and preschooler and they gave me the bulkhead row--it seemed to help a lot. Still Sarah became unruly and even though I had a ton of activities packed and a movie queued up the stranger across the isle with the 'new' crayon and coloring book helped out.

    In one sense I admire Dave for being so easy going--I can't wrap my brain around that! On the other, I totally feel your pain, because I too put myself in other people's shoes.

    Thanks for sharing! Oh & great tip Terri about the picture on the tray table!

  8. We have had complaints as well up in the air. ELizabeth has a movement disorder and is often in a state of perpetual motion which to some is quite annoying (her husband will need to be a pretty patient fella).
    It is a hard place where to draw the line, I usually remove her shoes and AFO's to lessen the thumps, distract and her pin her legs. I really would like to welcome the complainer to our world for a minute. Our last flight they put us in the reserved seats for people with physical disabilities which was in the front row which was less stressful.
    Wish us luck we are flying on the weekend.

  9. I don't know if my Dad's solution would work with Max - he had the person behind me kick my chair for a while. I never kicked another chair on an airplane.

  10. Bulkhead seats are inevitably gone, but going forward, I can try booking earlier...and explaining our situation. Good thought.

    Because Max's kicking isn't related to his disabilities (unlike Elizabeth), I wouldn't ask for seats for the physically disabled ahead of time but if it got closer to the flight time and the seats were available, I'd grab 'em.

    Good luck flying with Elizabeth!

    OH, and kherbert? Sad to say, I think Max would ENJOY that.

  11. We had our 3-year-old doing this on our flights to and from Orlando last year. Mortifying! Luckily, on one leg the man in front of us was able to move over a seat. On another leg of the flight he kicked and kicked and kicked the seat of a large man who was trying to sleep in front of us. We were so worried he was going to turn around and freak out on us. We apologized as our flight landed, and the man turned and smiled at our son and said it really wasn't a big deal. Sometimes we are blessed by the niceness of strangers! :)

  12. I dont fly a lot. But I book travel for frequent travelers (who mostly end up in first class due to their upgrades and status). The last flight I took it was just a twitcher. And as someone who has spasms (and wouldnt sleep anyway) nothing bothers me really.

    Can I say something that bothers me today regarding children with disabelities? I cant tweet or blog because I would be identified immediately by my Company.

    Pardon my spelling. I know I did something wrong but have no spell check.

  13. A friend once suggested for long flights that I go to the dollar store, wrap up 10 small presents, and disperse them throughout the flight.

    I have rowdy toddler twins, and it does work. That, and lots of snacks.

  14. We had the exact same thing happen with my daughter on a flight to Vancouver - and sitting in front of us was a flight attendant, as well as the CEO of Westjet! I forewarned her that my daughter has special needs, and is a seat kicker, and she lasted about two minutes. She moved seats. She told us that if we call ahead and explain the situation, they would give us the bulkhead for sure. I said that I wouldn't want to take that spot away from a family that would truly need it - she said, "Trust me. You need it."

  15. I agree with what you put about him needing to be treated like any other kid. But folk need tolerance too.
    [Before Ashley came along I think I was quite intolerant of disabled kids especially when it came to noise - their screeches really annoyed me.]
    Apart from the occasional hissy fit in town Ashley is usually in Charm Mode but I have NO idea how he'd be on a flight or a long coach trip.

  16. Try booking the front row by the bulkhead if you can pick your seat. You have to deal with those stupid trays but there's no one in front of you to get kicked.

    Other than that your only resources are lotsa toys/distractions and pre-flight exhaustion so they sleep the whole way.

  17. That is so tough. I've never flown with Olivia...but obviously have had upsetting behavior in public! I get the other people and myself. Olivia screams when she's excited...not always the greatest behavior!

  18. Even with lots of toys/games for distracting, E does the seat-kicking thing and it's mortifying. The last time we flew, I ended up with bruises all over my arms trying to get him to stop (I took the blows instead of the seat times).

  19. Thank you for posting this blog and for expressing how your child's behavior is important to you. I can only imagine as a parent the daily struggles of raising a child with special needs, yet it's reassuring that not all parents in that situation use it as an excuse for disruptive behavior. I think your approach is absolutely correct, I am sure you and your husband will look back on this experience as a lesson learned. I also hope your post reminds other parents of SN children that it's not okay to use their child's condition as an excuse to not be a responsible parent.

  20. Adam doesn't kick seats but will not be quiet and wants everything other people have... Most people try to talk with him but figure out that he doesn't understand them and they don't understand him.... They try ignoring him at first but he keeps on until they are frustrated... None of my distractions work unfortunately

  21. I've always maintained that Button's autism is an expalnation for his behaviour - not an excuse, so we try our hardest to teach him appropraite behaviour when we're out and about. Personally, I'd rather a bit of seat kicking than a full blown meltdown because we told him to stop!!! Pick your battles!

  22. I don't know how we could fly with our daughter. I think once we got her in the plane she would be okay, she makes a low growling noise (we think of it as purring), but she can be so strong willed and anything that doesn't make sense to her she will not do. I can't imagine convincing her to remove her shoes for security.

  23. What a blessing that the woman in front of him didn't complain or make a rude comment, but instead realized that a distraction was in order and offered him one!

  24. My (NT) son used to do this INCESSENTLY. He’d also shriek and wail and generally make himself unpleasant to be around. EVERY FLIGHT. TAKE OFF TO TOUCH DOWN. The bulging bag of snacks & distractions were not match for the cruelty of expecting him to remain in one spot for more than 2 minutes. We actually stopped traveling for a while – though he’s older now & my girl can’t yet reach the seat backs so the adventures resumed.

    We had a speech, offered to the poor folks in front of us: He’s a kicker. He may fall asleep after we take off (never happened). If he doesn’t we can buy you a drink or my husband (!) will switch seats with you. No one ever took us up on the offer, but I stopped feeling bad because the offer was out there.

    The only time I DIDN’T make the offer: We’d barely made the plane – hot from running thru the terminal, no make up, no hairbrush. Standard frazzled mom. The snotty sorority girl in front of us actually turned around & was glaring at us & my shrieking boy before we even got the car seat strapped in. Her cuteness sent me over the edge – “You might as well turn back around because staring isn’t going to change anything”. (She did). I hope she was hungover and aspirin-less during that flight.

    Also, I've wanted to tell you that I just finished reading all your archives and believe you're simply fabulous, and your kids adorable, but then your dad passed away and fan mail didn't seem appropriate - I'm so sorry for your loss. But you are fabulous!

  25. I think you did the right thing. As a traveler and parent to a kiddo with special needs, I can tolerate a lot of things during a flight if I know the parent is aware of what's going on and trying to manage it, like you were. Ultimately kids are going to do what they're going to do, special needs or not, but I appreciate it when the parent appreciates that it may be affecting other people.

    I'm also nervous about how my son is going to do on our upcoming flight. He has autism and hasn't flown since he was diagnosed a year ago, and that was before he'd developed a lot of his behavioral and sensory issues. My husband will be flying with us, but he's taking a diff. flight home so it will be just me and my 2 kids on the way back...I'm already shaking in my boots! I like the bulkhead suggestion and I think I'll request it. On the plus side, that also puts us closer to the changing tables, which seem to only be in the front of the plane bathroom.

    Has anyone flown SouthWest with a child who doesn't have visible SN? Since it's a choose your own seat plane, would they let you request the bulkhead seats?

  26. Flying with any kid can be hard work, they get bored, the adults are bored. Everybody is trapped. But in the great scheme of things it doesn't last too long.

    That's what my mantra will be later this year when we fly to Bulgaria

  27. We have the kicking the seat problem too, only my daughter doesn't do it on purpose. She has some stimming behavior involving kicking her leg (and happens mostly when she's enjoying herself, so the "distractions" actually cause the kicking). It's hard to get her to stop something she isn't even aware that she's doing. I also agree with Taz about picking your battles: a meltdown over the kicking would be worse than the kicking. Luckily the only time it seemed to bother the person in front of us he had an empty seat next to him, so I just switched places with my daughter.

  28. This is for MAYA--I have flown SW and they let parents/kids board ahead of everyone else. Otherwise, it's Group A, B and C, depending on how early you showed up at the airport. If you call them ahead of time and tell them about your situation, you can probably arrange to get the seats in the front without too much trouble--that's what I did and good thing, too, as my little monsters are poor travellers and one in particular was having melt-down issues during that timeframe. I do find that tiring 'em out before the flight helps, especially if they're the type kid that will sleep in a moving vehicle or away from home with no issues.

  29. We have stopped taking 12 on any public transport. It just became too difficult. I know you probably don't want to here it but I really admire how you keep doing all the usual things.

    In some ways it isn't any different to taking any other kid on a trip, they can all act up if they are bored and when they know your options to deal with their actions are limited.

  30. Teri had the considerate answer - let the parent sit in the seat in front of the child. It's not fair by any stretch of the imagination to expect a stranger to tolerate kicking, no matter if it's involuntary or not.

    And actually, Dave's indifferent shrug was more offensive than Max's kicking. Shame on him.

  31. Did anybody here say it was fair? Did you read the entire post? What if a child has special needs and can't help the kicking? Dave's reaction was also quintessentially Dave, he is a very laid back guy. Shame on you for coming to this blog and leaving an obnoxious anonymous comment.

  32. If Max can't really help it, I would let the people in front of him know that and express your apprecitiation for their understanding. If Max is capable of not kicking, then it is wrong to let him. Period. I believe that we must allow those with disabilities to be fully integrated in society, and if those disablities cause us inconvenience or momentary discomfort that is the acceptable price we pay for inclusion. BUT if this has nothing to do with his disablity, then it is very inconsiderate of others to allow it. It has nothing to do with being "laid back." That's fine when he is kicking Dave. It's about rudeness though when he ignores Max kicking others (again, only if this is something that Max can indeed control).

  33. Ellen, thanks for sharing your flight experience! My son has autism and our primary mass disruption is chirping...maybe I'll bring earplugs for the entire plane cuz I'm not sure that even WestJet has soundproof force fields around each seat yet! :-)

    Your post has encouraged me, sometimes it's just helpful to know that my kid isn't the only one that seems impossible to distract in just that stressful moment!

    Kudos to the person in front of you who thought to pass back the paper and pen!

  34. What you did was fine. The only time I get upset while travelling is when a parent does nothing to try to fix the child's behavior. I try my hardest to be considerate of special needs and age when I fly. (After all, sometimes after mommy tries, a 2 year old just won't stop kicking.)

    What you did was fine. I agree though; it may be easiest to have one parent sit in front of him or to try to get bulkhead seats.

    And ignore the ignorant comments. CP isn't mental retardation and even so, that's not a good usage for "retarded". You are a wonderful mother.

  35. Donna in Little Rock, ARApril 3, 2012 at 7:57 PM

    to everyone claiming that seatkicking should be ignored because a child has special needs: Would you allow your child to kick the person in front of him? No (at least you had better not!)- so why is it ok to kick the seat? The person is still feeling the kick - as witnessed by ellen stating that the entire row in front of them was having to deal with it because her son was kicking so hard. It is NOT ok.

    ellen: perhaps if you'd stop allowing max to kick the seat in front of him in your car, he wouldn't feel it's ok to do it in an airplane. You're allowing him to kick in the car then saying no to the airplane but to him it's the same motion of kicking the seat in front of him and his sense of entitlement.

    Teach your childern, regardless of their abilities, the basic human courtesy of NOT kicking a seat, person, or anything else that may be in front of him other than a ball.


Thanks for sharing!