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Here’s the right way to treat a kid with autism (United Airlines, take note)

TJ and his mama. (Courtesy of the author)
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There has been a big story in the news recently about a family being kicked off of a United Airlines plane due to a fear that the daughter with autism mom would disrupt the flight.  According to reports, the non-verbal daughter was in the early stages of feeling hungry, and her mom knew she needed to eat to avoid a meltdown. But the only warm food on the plane was for the first class passengers. The mom pleaded with the flight attendant, explained her daughter had special needs, and offered to pay extra for the food. Finally the flight attendant accommodated the family only after the mother explained that if she didn’t eat, “she’ll be crying and trying to scratch in frustration. I don’t want her to get to that point.” The family received the food and the mom and daughter settled in for their flight. All was well.

Here is where that story should have ended.

Instead, the flight attendant told the plane captain, who decided to make an emergency landing and have police escort the family, complete with a calm daughter, off of the plane.

Other passengers, who were vocalizing their support of the autistic girl, who appears here calm and content, took video of the incident.

Police removed a family from a United Airlines flight headed to Oregon after a pilot made an emergency landing in Utah due to what the family called a “fear of autism.” United said the decision to divert the plane and remove the family was made in the interest of the “safety” and “comfort” of the other passengers. (Video: Twitter/Chris Hall)

I am an autism mom.  My TJ is 15.  And this story makes me feel sick.

We recently had a similar experience that could have ended the same way for us, but at a restaurant, not on a plane.

And instead of what happened to this family, ours is a success story about people who show empathy, kindness, understanding and acceptance.

My family and I live in a small town. A few miles away from our home is my husband’s and my favorite restaurant: Loretta’s Fine Italian. We have been eating there for years. It’s a small restaurant, and Loretta makes the most delicious food. For years we placed special orders for Christmas Eve take out for our entire family, usually going to pick it up early so we can talk with dear Linda behind the bar as we wait. When TJ’s Occupational Therapy Center was fundraising, Loretta chose one night to donate 10 percent of every check earned to donate to our center.

It’s that kind of fantastic, local, family friendly place. And more importantly, we discovered, it is a TJ friendly place.

TJ was not having the most flexible of days when we decided to go out to dinner a few weeks ago. We were all sitting around the table when we got our menus.

Sometimes I call ahead to ask if burger and fries, TJ’s favorite, are on that night’s menu. If it wasn’t on the menu, Loretta has been known to go to the market and buy just enough to make just for him. But this night I didn’t call ahead. We didn’t want TJ to always count on that special treatment. We wanted him to learn to be flexible with limited menu options. When we don’t push him, he gets too comfortable and he doesn’t learn. And some of the best advice I had ever heard once was “treat him like everyone else – that way he will know what to do to fit into society.” It’s an important skill for my boy with autism. For some, however, particularly for a child who is non-verbal, that’s not an option.

When TJ saw that there was no burger, he started to get agitated.  I said to him “Remember, sweetie, you can always order plain buttered noodles. And you get to add your own salt!”

I got a “Hrumph” and a furrowed brow.  But we were still okay – he was holding it together.

When we placed our order with our lovely waitress, who didn’t know us, I asked for TJ’s plate to have no garnish. No parsley, no green anything on the plate, nothing but the buttered noodles. She smiled at our quirky order and brought it back to Loretta in the kitchen.

TJ sat there fuming. I could tell his anger was building. I asked him to take a deep breath. “NO!” he yelled. Everyone was looking at us, but that’s nothing new. I explained to TJ that he was not allowed to behave like that in public and had to calm himself down. He wasn’t happy about it, but he did it.

This was not our first rodeo.

A few minutes later the waitress returned. She said “Loretta said she can make TJ some chicken fingers and fries, if he’d rather have that.  Would you like that?”

“YES!  Thank you!”  TJ again yelled. But now he was smiling. Beaming. You could sense his relief.

Loretta knew it was us. I assume it was the “no parsley nor garnish no nothing” that gave away our identity.

“Thank you so much,” I said, “and please tell Loretta that we love her.”

The waitress returned in a few minutes with some chicken wings, saying “Loretta thought you all might like these while you wait for your dinner.”

It is so tough being an autism mom. And to be on the receiving end of such kindness, such understanding, almost brought me to tears.  Loretta showed us once again that we were safe there, that her place was a place of acceptance and embracing TJ for who he is, good and bad.

This is the feeling that the Oregon autism mom should have received from the airline. It was a huge opportunity lost for them as an organization, in a time when one out of every 68 kids has autism. It was a time where national headlines should have read “autism acceptance is alive and well in the sky.”

I’m not saying that the entire world needs to bend to accommodate us and our kids. What I am saying is that if we are handling our autistic kiddos, as us parents know how to do, a little empathy, kindness and acceptance goes a long way. Sometimes it is the difference between a hugely positive experience and a hugely negative experience. That’s how fine a line it is.

So next time, if you happen to see a kid having a meltdown in the market, and a tearful mom trying desperately to calm down her child, instead of scowling and judging her as a bad parent, how about an understanding smile?

It could really make a difference.

PS: As for lovely Loretta’s, they are sadly closing their doors after serving our community for so many happy years.  But not without huge thank yous and hugs (and flowers – shhhh!) from us. But lucky us, Loretta and Linda live in town, so we still get to tell them we love them, every chance we get.

Lauren Swick Jordan blogs at I Don’t Have a Job.

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