By Tiffany N. Kilby, M.S., BCBA, Guest Author
Founder & Director, thebehaviorstation.com
On Tuesday, May 5th, a family was escorted off a United Airlines flight after an emergency landing on the way to Portland, Oregon. Juliette, a 15-year-old female diagnosed with autism, along with her mother, father, and brother, were led off the flight by local police.
According to news reports by KOIN 6 News (KOIN Video) and ABC News (ABC News Video), an announcement was made on the plane that there would be an emergency landing due to a passenger with “behavior issues.” According to the mother’s interviews with the news stations, because the family was seated in the main cabin, she was denied being able to buy a first-class meal for Juliette until she told the flight attendant, “How about we wait for her to have a meltdown, she’ll be crying and trying to scratch in frustration.”
KOIN News received a statement from United Airlines:
United Airlines Statement
In a statement to KOIN 6 News, United Airlines spokeswoman Jennifer Dohm said, “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 of 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.”
The Beegles boarded a Delta flight from Salt Lake City to Portland.
The mother stated in her interview that she asked the police to take statements to see if her daughter was disturbing anyone on the plane; according to her report, the police officer told her that she had ‘a lot of people on her side.’ However, according to the news report, at least one person on the flight supported the airline’s decision.
The mother announced that they will be suing United Airlines. The mother is blaming a “fear of autism” as the unwarranted reason for the emergency landing, and she has stated, “I get the ignorance. But it has to change.”
I have looked closely at these two news reports (KOIN 6 News, KOIN Video and ABC News, ABC News Video), including the interviews with the Juliette’s mother, Dr. Beegle. My observations are below. Please note that these observations are based on what was reported in the latter reports. While others may be reporting this story to choose sides, the purpose of sharing these observations is to consider all sides based specifically on what was reported by KOIN 6 News and ABC News.
The first things I noticed about the story were these titles: “‘Fear of Autism’ Forces Tigard Family Off Plane” (KOIN 6 News) and “Woman Claims She and Daughter With Autism Were Kicked Off United Airlines Flight” (ABC News). I was immediately overcome with feelings of anger and frustration. I have family members with autism. When people with autism, or anyone else for that matter, are treated unfairly, I am the first to stand up for them. But first, it is always important to get as much information as possible. I quickly came to my senses and realized that reading these titles did not mean I had access to the full story. Before we point blame and call people names, we need to delve deeper into the story.
The news reports by KOIN 6 News (KOIN Video) and ABC News (ABC News Video) only reported one side of this story — the family’s. Juliette’s mother was interviewed by both news teams, so the stories were told from their perspective. KOIN News included a statement made by the airline, but other than that, we only had access to the report of the family.
I read the news reports and watched the parent interviews. Juliette’s mother mentioned that she said she told the flight attendant, “How about we wait for her to have a meltdown, she’ll be crying and trying to scratch in frustration.” I can see how the flight attendant might have been concerned, especially since she may have never had an experience with autism.
People with autism have rights, and I, personally, advocate for those rights on a daily basis. However, the mother’s comment, with words like “meltdown” and “scratch,” may not have been ideally phrased, and could have been an opportunity missed to have explained and disseminated information about autism.
In my humble opinion, we must “assume” that anyone we talk to about autism has not had an experience with an individual with autism. Awareness has increased, certainly, but having heard about autism or knowing a little bit about it does not prepare one for being told that someone may cause injury to themselves or others.
Juliette’s mother also stated, “I get the ignorance. But it has to change.” How will the ignorance change if we give people a reason to have “fear of autism”? Telling people that an individual may have a meltdown and scratch without further explanation, especially in an enclosed space thousands of feet into the sky, is giving them a reason to fear. Providing an explanation not only allows for education (the opposite of ignorance), but also may help avoid these situations.
For example, “There is nothing to be scared of, but she cannot vocalize her needs and frustrations. Sometimes when she is hungry, we have what she calls meltdowns, including crying loudly and sometimes she tries to scratch herself or others. A hot meal might really help us avoid that frustration.” I acknowledge that in many situations, everything seems to unfold so quickly that it is not as easy to respond the way one would have if they had prepared. However, this is a learning experience for all of us. Perhaps future situations can be avoided by providing a simple, clear explanation.
While Dr. Beegle did not provide an explanation, it seems based on the reports/interviews that none of United Airlines staff asked for any more details, either. This is also problematic. Based on the reports, it seems that there was no imminent danger due to Juliette’s actions on the plane; she never tried to “scratch.”
The mother mentioned in one of her interviews that the captain never went to the family to see if everything was okay. I can understand that he may have felt the safety of the passengers may have been at risk, due to the mother’s comment, but since Juliette had not done anything to indicate danger, perhaps the captain and/or the flight attendants should have looked further into the situation before making the decision to make an emergency landing.
We must consider that United Airlines may have made the right decision if they were unaware of or not told of the severity that Juliette could reach if the “meltdown” had occurred. Had the mom not mentioned the “meltdown” or the “scratching,” this may have been an entirely different situation. We cannot be so quick to call this “discrimination” after a comment that mentioned potential physical danger for others, or even for Juliette herself. On the other hand, as mentioned above, staff on the United Airlines flight should have asked for more information or tried to make other accommodations for the family.
After the family was escorted off the United Airlines flight, based on the statement KOIN News shared, the spokesperson for United Airlines stated, “We rebooked the customers on a different carrier and the flight continued to Portland.” Customers across the country, and the world, are rebooked every day. My only hope, in this case, is that United Airlines did everything in their power to rebook them on another United Airlines flight, and did not simply rebook the family “on a different carrier” to avoid any other interactions with Juliette and her family. That would be a bigger issue than an emergency landing.
I hope that we all use this as a learning experience, and do not focus so much on name-calling and blaming. I also hope that we can use this as a lesson on why education and explanations for autism are crucial, and they are the core of autism awareness, and more importantly, Autism Acceptance.
“Autism awareness” does not only mean wearing blue or putting puzzle pieces everywhere – it means providing information and resources about the diagnosis and also how all individuals with this diagnosis are different. It means our goal should not only be to disseminate accurate information about autism and autism treatment, but also try to get everyone #AllAboard4AcceptingASD!
As mentioned above, the purpose of this piece is to consider all sides, and also to point out details that we can hopefully all learn from. Comments are always welcome, as long as they are respectful to all. And remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!
About the Author
Tiffany N. Kilby, MS, BCBA is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) for children with autism and developmental disabilities for private companies providing applied behavior analysis (ABA) services. She has also founded an organization, The Behavior Station (https://TheBehaviorStation.com), to disseminate behavior analysis and resources. Her passion for ABA stems from her passion for raising autism awareness in honor of her family members on the autism spectrum. Tiffany learned about ABA after she decided to work in the field of autism; she was instantly impressed by the high standards and science of behavior analysis. Her enthusiasm for learning more about ABA led her to attend Florida State University’s ABA Program, where she received rigorous training in ethics. In addition to being a member of local, state, and national ABA associations, she is the Chair for the Ethical/Professional Special Interest Group of the Florida Association of Behavior Analysis and Treasurer of the Gold Coast Association for Behavior Analysis. Tiffany aspires to continue learning about the field and also help bridge behavior analysts and the world together.