TIGARD, Ore. (KOIN) — Donna Beegle never imagined the story of her family being kicked off an airplane because of what she described as a “fear of autism” would garner the kind of international attention its received.
“I didn’t expect it to go to China and France and Belgium and Australia,” she told KOIN 6 News Tuesday. But she’s not surprised at the reaction from commenters on social media questioning her lack of preparedness and parenting skills.
“It makes me feel good. Questions are being asked, people are asking ‘What’s autism?’ that hadn’t thought about it before,” she said. “That’s really what autism awareness is all about.”
She, her husband Charles Forbes, their son and their daughter Juliette were returning from DisneyWorld. They flew from Orlando to Houston, had a layover and then boarded United Flight 1535 from Houston to Portland.
Juliette, a 15-year-old Tigard High School student with autism, didn’t eat her dinner at the Houston airport. Once on the plane, Beegle noticed a tell-tale sign from Juliette and spoke with a flight attendant about buying a hot meal from first class.
The flight attendant said no, but relented after Forbes said Juliette might have a “meltdown” and scratch someone if she didn’t get a hot meal.
The pilot then made an emergency landing in Salt Lake City and the family was removed from the plane. United booked the family a flight on Delta to Portland.
Social commenters: Not prepared
Among the most prevalent comments taking the family to task on social media was that they weren’t prepared. Beegle laughed at that notion.
“Juliette has a to-go bag, and her bag goes everywhere with us. It’s full of her favorite things” — snacks, crayons, sketch pads, her tablet.
They tried to have dinner in Houston — “it was food she likes” — but Juliette just didn’t eat it.
“I don’t think any human can predict everything,” she said. “And with children they’re unpredictable, whether they have autism or not.”
“We didn’t feel like this was about preparedness. We set her up for the most success we possibly could.”
Social commenters: Just drive
Beegle said her daughter has flown since she was 6 months old.
“Juliette has been to London, Paris, Trinidad, Turks, she’s flown to 22 states,” she said. “My work requires me to travel and I need to be with my family, so that means they get to come with me.”
On this trip to DisneyWorld, the family went together while Beegle was on a business trip.
Social commenters: Let the airline know ahead of time
Beegle said Juliette has flown so much it did not even occur to her to tell the airline her daughter has autism.
“It’s never been an issue. We’ve never let the airline (know ahead of time,)” she said. “It’s like this one time we’re going to predict this happened and you call? It doesn’t make any sense.”
She said the issue wasn’t Juliette. It was an “issue of ignorance by the flight crew. … The ignorance is what landed that plane, not Juliette.”
Social commenters: Hot meal and howling
Juliette’s father, Charles Forbes, was seated in the middle with Juliette in the window seat. He said they did not get on the plane expecting a hot meal.
He said she had a melt down, but “she was not a safety threat.”
“Why is this girl kicked off the plane because she’s crying? Why don’t they kick mothers with small children, babies off the plane? They don’t,” he said. “It’s unreasonable, just as unreasonabler to throw us off the plane.”
“She’s not a wolf. That’s her cry. She’s a child,” Beegle said. “She gets louder and louder as her frustrations get more, just like any other person.”
The legal avenue
The family met with an attorney Tuesday, and Beegle again said money is not her goal.
“We simply don’t want people treated that way. Treat people with dignity. Treat people with respect. Help if you can. That’s all I want,” Beegle told KOIN 6 News.
“All I want is United Airlines to say, ‘You know what? We’re really sorry we landed that plane. We’re going to get some training.”
United Airlines response
“We stand by the original statement,” Karen May, the Public Relations Manager for United Airlines, told KOIN 6 News on Tuesday.
May emphasized United Airlines participates in autism awareness and support programs and events, including The AIR Program. That program provides a simulated travel experience for children with autism — how to travel, how to board, how to go through security.
They also participate in a program called Wings for Autism, which (the website states) “takes the scare out of the air for special needs kids.”
Asked how common it is a family is removed from a flight over this kind of issue, May said, “This is the only one I am aware of.”
United Airlines, she said, “is sensitive to children with autism.” But she added in this case, “The crew made the best decision” for the safety of everyone aboard the plane.
She said she was not aware of any specific programs United Airlines offers to help train its employees about autism.
“Our employees who volunteer with The AIR Program or the other (similar) programs may learn how to work with customers with autism,” May told KOIN 6 News.
She was not sure exactly how the decision to make an emergency landing for United Flight 1535 came to be made, but the crews make those decisions “on a case-by-case basis.”