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A Letter to Alaska Airlines From an Autism Mom

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Dear Alaska Airlines,

This thank you note is overdue. I meant many times to sit down and write it, but life with a 6-year-old and 4-year-old took over once we were home, and I never did. However, given the awful experience that a fellow Oregon family just had with United Airlines asking them and their daughter with autism to leave the plane on a flight home, I felt I must write and thank you.

I must let you know that, recently, my family was almost that family. Except we had the benefit of dealing with you and your employees, who handled things much differently.

When Autism Spectrum Disorder families read about experiences like the one that occurred recently on United, they can feel dismayed, like this is just our lot in life. Our struggle will be met with intolerance and impatience. People should know it isn’t always so. People should know it doesn’t have to be like that.

In February, we surprised our two children with a trip to Disneyland. We had a lot to celebrate. Our oldest, who has high functioning autism, had been doing very well integrated into a regular classroom for both his kindergarten and first grade years. And our youngest son had been home with us from China for a year. We were celebrating his Gotcha Day and Adoption Day at Disneyland. With so much spent on our son’s therapies and the adoption, we don’t have the finances to travel much. And with my husband being in the military, we wanted to make this trip before he deploys again. This vacation was a big deal for us.

My oldest had flown several times before. The idea of flying in the airplane scares him, but once we’re in the air, he sees it’s all right and relaxes. In the past, he’s merely repeatedly expressed his desire not to fly to me (at a conversational volume) during boarding, had a white knuckle grip on me during takeoff, and then relaxed once we were in the air. He’s usually content to pass the flight time reading or drawing, as long as he can feel secure keeping his seat belt securely fastened, and I don’t get up without him. We’ve been lucky. Although my son has many sensory issues and anxieties, flying has gone well for him.

Which is why, when he had a panic attack on the plane from Portland to L.A., we were completely caught off-guard. We had just boarded and sat down when he began to cry and say, “Mommy, please tell them I can’t fly. Please tell them I have to get off the airplane.” Over and over. Quietly at first, then increasingly not so quiet. My husband and I both were explaining to him it was all right to be afraid, but that he couldn’t shout. He was in a window seat, away from the other passengers, and we kept him to a somewhat “reasonable” volume, but he was shaking himself in his seat and no doubt disrupting and unnerving other passengers.

I apologized and explained to those closest to us that he has autism and was scared, but would be OK once we were in the air. Most seemed very understanding, but I could feel everyone’s tension. As for me, I felt sick with worry and guilt that this was so much harder for him than we expected, and that we were responsible for the disruption of our fellow passengers.

When Ken, who was the head attendant on the flight, asked to speak with me for a moment, I was not surprised. He was just doing his job. But it was the respect and graciousness with which he did his job that was so important. He quietly led me to the back of plane to inquire about my son. The very first thing he said to me was, “I’m so sorry. I know the person that this is most hard on is you and your family. But I have to ask a few questions so we can assess if we’ll have a problem in the air.” Which was completely understandable. He asked if my son had flown before, how that had gone and what was my best guess on what would happen if we proceeded, since “you know him best.”

After I answered his questions, he thought for a moment and said, “OK, let’s do it.” My son continued to appeal to all of us that he could not fly until the pilot hit the accelerator down the runway. His cries abruptly stopped and he said, “Oh, we’re going really fast.” The minute he felt us lift off, he said, “Woah. We’re off the ground. I was scared, but it’s better now.” I saw a lady seated near us smile and do a small fist pump in the air in celebration for us. I saw everyone else visibly relax. It was going to be all right. A little while into the flight, Ken quietly came by with two kids meals in Disney boxes, one for each of my boys. Just to celebrate that we had done it, and were actually on our way to Disneyland! I was so grateful and relieved, I wanted to cry…

And that was that. We had no more problems on that flight to Disneyland, nor did we have any on our return flight. Having just done it days before was enough to give my son the confidence to do it again. And our time at the Happiest Place on Earth was exactly as advertised. But we wouldn’t have gotten there at all if it wasn’t for Ken and the folks at Alaska Airlines. Because it so easily could have gone the other way.

So thank you. Thank you for making our experience so different. People should know there is help and hope out there.

Thank You,
A Very Grateful Mother

Related Story: Police Escort Teen With Autism and Her Family Off a Plane

Related Story: Dear Mom Who Was Kicked Off the United Airlines Flight

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Originally published: May 13, 2015
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