The gist of the story is that Donna Beegle, Ed.D. (an accomplished anti-poverty advocate) and her 15-year-old, Juliette, along with her husband and son, were en route home to Portland after a Disney World vacation. Juliette didn't have dinner before boarding the connecting flight in Houston, and although Donna brought snacks, Juliette didn't want them. So Donna asked a flight attendant if she could purchase a hot meal from the stash in first class, noting that her daughter could have a meltdown involving scratching in frustration. Another passenger on the flight has said that Juliette had been "howling."
After some back and forth, Juliette eventually got rice and jambalaya, calmed down and watched a video. Then came the announcement that the plane was making an emergency landing in Salt Lake City. Soon after, the family was escorted off the plane by police. Donna Beegle is planning to sue United Airlines. In taking her story public, she's said, she hopes that airlines will start training flight crews to better handle passengers with autism.
United Airlines issued this statement: "After working to accommodate Dr. Beegle and her daughter during the flight, the crew made the best decision for the safety and comfort of all our customers and elected to divert to Salt Lake City after the situation became disruptive. We rebooked the customers on a different carrier and the flight continued to Portland."
So there's that. And then there have been social media reactions that make you despair about how little people know about autism—or kids with special needs in general—and the startling lack of compassion out there.
People want to know why the mom didn't bring hot food or a meal in the first place. True, you typically can grab something in the terminal but that didn't happen. As Donna said, "I had no real way to bring hot snacks in my bag." Perhaps it was a fail on Donna's part. Either way, she doesn't deserve to be attacked. You can bet she never imagined the plane would end up making an emergency landing as a result. We are parents of the human variety; we aren't perfect, and we do what we can to handle imperfect situations.
As to why Juliette did not down some food with the family before she came onboard, well, maybe she wasn't hungry then. Or maybe she was tired from traveling—the family had earlier been on another flight. No matter how the situation came to pass, though, the reality was this: Juliette needed to get some hot food in her. And the mom asked for some. Is that so out of line? So terrible? So wrong? Would the social media mafia have reacted with such outrage to a request for a hot meal if, say, it came from the parent of an out-of-control toddler without special needs?
People just didn't seem to understand why a hot meal was so critical—or how this mom could have had the gall to ask to buy one, given that she was in coach seats. They have no clue about the texture preferences that kids with autism (and other special needs) can have. A teen who can only be satisfied by a hot meal? Yes, it happens. It's not about entitlement. It's about sensory issues and, as can happen, rigid ways of behaving that give a person with autism comfort.
People pointed out that Donna told the flight attendant that her child would throw a fit, with scratching involved (although she didn't say that she'd scratch others). Please felt that the captain had every right to be concerned that the girl could be a threat to other passengers. Who knows why, exactly, the captain decided an emergency landing was necessary. But I do know from experience that when you're on a flight and your child is on the verge of losing it, you will do anything and everything to keep the peace. If this mother sounded desperate or frustrated as she spoke with the flight attendant about the situation, and when she warned that a meltdown and scratching could ensue, she was expressing genuine urgency.
People noted that it wasn't the flight attendant's job to parent a child. True. But that wasn't what Donna Beegle requested. She simply asked for some hot food. See: Is that so out of line? So terrible? So wrong?
People said that Donna acted as if her daughter were the only passenger on the plane in making her "demands." Even parents of kids with autism called her on that. While Donna surely wanted to pacify Juliette, she likely was also eager to avoid annoying people sitting nearby. The intolerance from fellow passengers when a child with special needs loses it can be sky high. I'm sure Donna is no stranger to that.
Yet other commenters noted that the parents needed to learn how to better parent. As if the behavior of a teen with autism has anything to do with crappy parenting. You'd think that sort of misguided old-think would be gone by now but, no.
And then, this comment: "Maybe they shouldn't fly if their daughter's autism is so bad that her needs can't be met on board a plane." THUD. That was the sound my jaw made when it dropped to my desk. It is both mind-boggling and sad to see people's blatant discrimination against those with autism, who have as much of a right to fly or generally lead their lives as any other human being. In fact, Juliette has flown to London, Paris and 22 states, without similar incident. Hopefully, her future travels won't be affected by lingering trauma.
People with autism can have issues connecting with others, that's true. In the aftermath of this incident, it's blatantly clear that a whole lot of people have issues connecting with people with autism, or their parents. Parents of children with autism aren't trying to get away with anything in these sorts of situations. Usually, they're just trying to get by. Requesting a hot meal isn't such a big deal. Enough with the questions about why this mom didn't BYO hot food or wasn't prepared. Here's the ask that people should be pondering: How about some empathy?
Image source: Flickr/Robert S. Donovan