Midway through American Airlines Flight 101 from Heathrow to JFK, shortly after our microwaved meatball dinners were tossed out like frisbees, the flight attendant asked my son Ian if he wanted another beverage. He intently played his Tetris game on the backseat video console without replying or glancing her way.
Missing most of that exchange, I looked over in time to hear the flight attendant loudly exclaim, “Well, how RUDE is that?” She glared at me.
I recited the textbook response I give whenever Ian does something that inadvertently annoys strangers: “My son has autism, so we try to be understanding.”
My son has Asperger’s Syndrome and his autism is relatively mild, with his primary difficulty being social skills. Sometimes, in cases like these, he’s slow to respond when absorbed in a video game or iPhone app. Other times, his OCD tics might annoy people, or he might be too blunt. As I’ve learned, there are many, many ways to upset strangers. And because there’s nothing about his physical appearance or mannerisms that indicate his differences, the annoyed strangers immediately assume that he’s a bad kid until I speak up.
But this time, my textbook explanation wasn’t good enough for this flight attendant, who doubled down.
“Well, why didn’t you answer for him?” she demanded.
“Because I didn’t see you.”
Scowling at my husband, who was sitting next to my son, she said, “Well, why didn’t he say something?”
I said, “Look, we’re doing the best that we can.”
She continued to disparage our parenting and I repeated, “We’re doing the best that we can.”
Not knowing what he did wrong, Ian began throwing out random apologies hoping that one of them would stick: “I’m sorry! I misspoke! Uhhhh. I’m sorry! I’ll control my autisms!”
After the flight attendant stalked back to the rear of the plane, I started ugly-crying. Locked into my seat between my husband and my older son, I couldn’t run to the bathroom to compose myself. Nobody likes to be publicly humiliated for their parenting or have their children ridiculed, but what really turned on my waterworks was that my son’s gaffe was so small in comparison to what he has achieved.
Maybe this flight attendant was having a bad day. Maybe the airline is overworking its employees and not properly training its workers about customer relations ― there was another incident on American Airlines this summer involving a doctor from Texas who was asked to wear more clothes on a flight returning from Jamaica. But this incident wasn’t a one-off for us. I have a textbook response about my son’s autism for a reason. Strangers are constantly judging us for my son’s innocent and uncontrollable OCD tics and unfiltered language.
Autism is an invisible disability, for the most part. Some versions of autism are more obvious. For instance, some individuals will flap their hands and need a great deal of assistance from adults. My son’s disability takes the form of social cluelessness; he’s too truthful or too awkward or too compulsive. Even with years of therapy and nearly full-time attention from me, he still makes those social gaffes. Because he doesn’t wear a big sign on his forehead announcing his disability, strangers quickly make wrong assumptions and unfairly judge him and our parenting.
It’s even happened in church.
Years ago, when Ian was 6 or 7, our priest walked by our pew waving an incense holder. Ian covered his nose and shouted, “Jesus stinks!” The church ladies didn’t think that was very funny.
While the world has grown more understanding about other forms of diversity, we still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting neurological diversity.
To increase acceptance of people with neurological differences and offer more support for their families, the first step needs to be some solid education about autism. Students should be taught about this neurological difference in every health class in the country. With 1 in 40 children in America with an autism diagnosis — most of whom do not have cognitive difficulties and are educated in regular public schools — autism must be a mandatory part of every teacher’s education. And these lessons have to be echoed by groups in the community and in the workplace. Companies that interact frequently with the public, like the airline industry, need to train their workers. People need to recognize that autistic people come in all shapes and sizes and that many people have some autistic traits, and that it is possible to positively relate to people with autism.
And we need to stop judging parents when their toddlers are crying in the back of the plane or when teenagers forget to say “thank you.” Strangers, like the flight attendant we encountered, are so quick to assume that an autistic child is a “bad kid” with “bad parents,” because those stereotypes are so widespread. Maybe the kids are tired or hungry or upset about something serious and maybe the parents are overwhelmed. Maybe they’re autistic. If we become a more tolerant society that appreciates all kinds of families, then oddball families like mine will benefit.
About 30 minutes after our altercation, the flight attendant came back to our row. She apologized to me, saying “it was a learning experience” for her. I nodded. I’m happy that she rethought her actions, but I simply can’t educate everybody on my own. Schools, businesses, communities and churches have to provide this training. And everyone just needs to chill out about judging parents in general ― most of us are doing the very best that we can. Until that happens, families like mine will continue to be attacked and ridiculed, and individuals with autism will be kept in the margins of society without opportunities for work or travel.
The following week, I drove my son to his first day of computer camp. After sitting him down at a picnic table, I pulled the director of the camp aside and said, “My son has Asperger’s. He’s a little quirky. I hope that’s OK.” She smiled and said, “We welcome all children to our camp.” Maybe change happens slowly, one woke camp director at a time.