Child with Autism Kicked off Plane with Her Family – Are You Kidding Me?

I’m shaking as I write this right now, I’m so angry.

A family and their child with autism were reportedly kicked off a plane that made an emergency landing while traveling cross-country on a United flight last weekend for having “behavior issues”. Apparently the girl with autism became agitated on the long flight, and the mother realized the non-verbal child was probably hungry because she hadn’t had dinner yet.

“She started getting a little upset and I started thinking, ‘You know what? She didn’t eat her dinner,” the mother said. “I know her, when she gets over hungry or over thirsty, she really struggles because she can’t tell us and she gets really frustrated.”

child with autism kicked off flight
PHOTO: Jodi Smith, a passenger sitting three rows behind Juliette, said “this was the epitome of discrimination.” As featured on ABC news.

Like many children with special needs, the child in this report has specific preferences with her food that are a challenge to reason with.  In order to stave off a meltdown, the mom asked a flight attendant if she could buy a heated meal from first class.  The flight attendant initially refused, but the mom persisted, knowing the best way to handle her daughter’s needs.  A heated meal was eventually brought to the family, and the child relaxed, but shortly thereafter an announcement was made from the pilot that they were making an emergency landing because a passenger in the plane had “behavior problems”.  The family was escorted off the plane by police in Salt Lake City as passengers on the flight voiced their disapproval.  The worst of it?  The airlines stands behind their decision.

As a mom with a special needs child, this makes me angry – and sad.  The family was coming home from a great trip to Disney World, the child was tired and, because of preferences that she can’t control the family was kicked off the plane?  There was no reported meltdown, no yelling or violence, just a little agitation that was resolved once the flight attendant helped out and honored the mom’s request. Yes, the mom could have been more prepared, but the airline completely missed the boat on customer service.  I’m saddened to think of how many families, already concerned about traveling with their special needs child, might not take that special trip because of the fear that this might happen to them.

Could that have been my family?  My daughter is not on the spectrum, but after a long trip and with her specific needs, this all hits a little close to home.  We’ve all been on a flight where a child cried the entire flight, but that wasn’t deemed a behavior issue – why is this situation different? In my mind it’s because this child’s behavior looked different due to her disability. It wasn’t the behavior that scared the flight attendant and pilot, but autism.  It looks to me like United Airlines is going to need a little training on understanding and compassion. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with more people than ever before being diagnosed with ASD, so United had better get their policies figured out.

As a family with a special needs child, how can you help prepare for a good flight?

  1. Airport Rehearsals – Some airports offer Airport Rehearsals, where you and your child go through the entire airport, security check, boarding procedures – and even taxi on the run way. For some children, just taking the unknown out of flying will help prepare them and make for a smoother flight.
  2. Let the airline know in advance – My daughter’s needs are generally more physical, although when we first started traveling she had a lot more anxiety. I always check the “Special Services” box when I book flights with my daughter, explaining her needs briefly. When we check into the flight I let the agents know that we need more time to board.
  3. Prepare for anticipated needs – Bring special foods, a favorite toy, whatever your child needs to feel comfortable and have their potential needs met.

Here are more tips for flying with a special needs child. Have you found a great strategy for flying with your special needs child?  Please share!

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  • Having asperger’s and being incontinent from a herniated disc operation, I understand the point of view on this. I have traveled by plane and car and still find it hard to prepare for those long in between changes. The ASD part isn’t near as bad as it had been when I was a child. I had horrid meltdowns and adults were my main focus of anger. If I could redo those times…

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