‘Fear of autism’ forces Tigard family off plane

"I get the ignorance," Donna Beegle said. "But it has to change."

Donna Beegle, May 8, 2015 (KOIN)
Donna Beegle, May 8, 2015 (KOIN)

TIGARD, Ore. (KOIN) — Donna Beegle, her husband and their son and daughter were headed back to Portland on Tuesday after spending a few days at DisneyWorld in Orlando.

They flew from Orlando to Houston, with a connecting flight from Houston to Portland on United Airlines Flight 1535. About an hour into the flight to Portland, she noticed a tell-tale sign from her daughter.

“She started getting a little upset and I started thinking, ‘You know what? She didn’t eat her dinner,” Donna Beegle told KOIN 6 News. “I know her, when she gets overhungry or overthirsty, she really struggles because she can’t tell us and she gets really frustrated.”

Juliette Forbes, May 8, 2015 (KOIN)
Juliette Forbes, May 8, 2015 (KOIN)

Juliette, a 15-year-old sophomore at Tigard High School, has autism.

Beegle said they’ve become very good at anticipating what Juliette needs and how she’ll react to certain things. She said her daughter is “extremely picky” about what she eats, and she asked if there was a hot meal she could buy from the first-class section of the flight.

At first, she was told no, she said, and then explained her daughter’s needs. “He said, ‘No, I can’t make an exception.'”

Beegle told KOIN 6 News she explained that if her daughter didn’t get a hot meal, she would “get to the meltdown point” and maybe scratch someone. Juliette soon got a first-class meal.

Emergency landing

Soon, she said, Juliette – sitting in a window seat –  was calm and watching a video when a cabin announcement told passengers the plane was making an emergency landing in Salt Lake City due to a passenger “in the back of the plane who has behavior issues.”

Paramedics came on board and eventually made their way to where the Beegles were sitting. They asked if everything was fine, and the Beegles said yes.

“They could see Juliette was sitting there watching her show,” she said.

Video taken by passenger Chris Hall and provided to KOIN 6 News:

Beegle said the paramedics alerted them they may be asked to leave the plane. Soon, police arrived and told the family they had to leave.

Juliette Forbes, left, and her mother Donna Beegle, May 8, 2015 (KOIN)
Juliette Forbes, left, and her mother Donna Beegle, May 8, 2015 (KOIN)

“It was completely bizarre,” she told KOIN 6 News. She realized they were being asked to leave the plane “because of the fear of autism.”

Police told her the captain was not comfortable flying to Portland with Juliette on the plane, she said. That’s when Beegle said she stood up and asked if anyone on the plane felt threatened by the teen.

“The people were, like, ‘No, leave her alone.'”

She demanded the police officer take statements from the other passengers. “He said, ‘You have a lot of people on your side saying this was not an issue.'”

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.

Filing suit

“I get the ignorance,” Beegle said. “But it has to change.”

She decided to contact the media and she’s hired an attorney. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the training” people need, she said, and added 1 in 68 children face autism.

She’s filing a lawsuit “so no one else has to go through this.”

Donna Beegle said her daughter is a treasure. “Every day we learn things from her.”

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