Passengers on a United Airlines flight en route to Portland got an unexpected tutelage in autism. The plane performed an emergency landing, and Donna Beegle's family was ordered to disembark because of her 15 year-old daughter's "potential" for a meltdown.
By all accounts, Juliette, like a great majority of people with autism spectrum disorder, is a picky eater who became distressed over her in-flight meal.
Beegle had some snacks on board for Juliette because "if her blood sugar lets go, she gets frustrated and antsy. We try to anticipate that and prevent that."
Since Juliette tends to refuse room-temperature food, Beegle asked to buy a hot meal from first-class, but was refused.
Beegle tried to negotiate with the attendant, explaining that if they waited for her daughter to have a meltdown, "she'll be crying and trying to scratch in frustration. I don't want her to get to that point."
Eventually the attendant brought the teen some rice, and she then calmly sat watching a video.
But later the plane performed an emergency landing because of a passenger with "a behaviour issue." The family was ordered to disembark, even though medics and police saw that there was no threat except the one perceived by the crew.
The attendant was described as "over-reactive." Police apologized, and fellow passengers rushed to the girl's defence.
"It just killed me for her to be treated that way," Beegle said. She is now suing the airline, “so no one else has to go through this.”
United stressed the decision was made "for the safety and comfort of all of our customers." Beegle hopes legal action will prompt airlines to give its staff adequate autism training.
As someone with a young child with autism, such stories leave me cold. My family deserves to have a life, too. We have the right to travel together, and yet we don't for this very reason.
I'm terrified that we will be met with the kind of stony ignorance and resistance faced by Beegle and her family.
As a parent of any child, there are only so many preparations you can undertake. Sometimes the unforeseeable can and will happen.
Families like mine don't expect special treatment for special needs.
What we do expect is a willingness to accommodate and support all passengers, not demonize or disregard those who happen to have needs you don't understand.