Thursday, June 26, 2008

Autism and airlines: the story goes viral

Jarret Farrell and his mother have made at least 100 news stories in outlets around the world, not to mention all the blogging that's already been done. There are literally thousands of comments from people, all of whom are weighing in on one side (the airline) or the other (the mother and child). My take is that so far, we've heard two really different stories about the incident, and I'm waiting for some interviews from passengers to determine what was really going on on that airplane.

One thing that leaps out as I read these stories is the description of the flight attendant summarily tightening the child's belt. Can we just make it a rule, for everyone, all over the world? DO NOT TOUCH SOMEONE ELSE'S CHILD WITHOUT ASKING PERMISSION FIRST. Thanks.

The second thing that requires restating is, when you fly, you're using PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION. Unless you're on your private jet, it's not an adults-only cruise, it's a general public mode of travel. That means ya gotta deal with the existence of the general public, a term that includes not only screaming children but also drunk icky people who talk too much and too loudly for hours on end, obnoxious people who constantly kick the back of your airplane seat, people who seem to have about 15 elbows, all poking into you, and the guy next to you who knocks back his eighth vodka tonic, passes out cold, and proceeds to snore through the remaining nine hours of a flight to China with a sound that would drown out the noise of an F5 tornado.

And the final thing that leaps out among all of the abusive, conclusive comments (and there are many many of those) is the way so many posters are hammering on the mother for "losing it" when the pilot decided to turn the plane around. She should have, they say, kept it together. What a loser she is for crying, they say.

It's funny, that, because just yesterday, I was talking to the mother of a special needs child and we were comparing notes on our very similar preschool experiences with our kids. I told her how every day, when TH would go out with Dubya and the nanny to local playgrounds and other places where children congregate, I'd call the nanny at noon to see how things were going. And every day, she'd say they were fine, "except that TH..." and then she'd describe whatever socially unacceptable thing TH had done to a total stranger that day. The incidents varied but invariably involved his utter lack of comprehension about social interaction. Every. Single. Day.

His experience at his preschool was similar. Teachers would blame him for being a troublemaker, pointing the finger at him for starting things, and it got to the point that I started to watch, in secret (seriously, from behind some bushes), to see what was really going on. And I saw, again and again, that someone would do something to TH--the weird child, the space oddity of the preschool--and he would retaliate in his way. And the teacher would see only the retaliation and TH would be in "trouble." I heard parents complain at parent-teacher meetings about all the time devoted to the "troubled" and "special needs" children at the school, and I knew they meant TH. And every day, it was some new story about something negative having to do with our son. We removed him from that school, and thinking that he was there even for those few months still makes me ill.

I came to dread it. Mr. DMFP and I dreaded taking him to parties or into public places, watching him closely on playgrounds for the impending social misstep, whether it was flapping his hands an inch from a stranger's face or mystifying his same-age peers with his irrelevant vocalizations or odd behaviors. We'd see the kids literally back away slowly, carefully, eyeing our son as though he were indeed David Bowie newly arrived on the planet in full glam mode. Parents would grab their kids and tug them away, tossing us angry looks after one of TH's physical transgressions, even as we were in the midst of having him apologize.

With that dread comes the expectation of public embarrassment of some kind, of the necessity of providing The Explanation, of the stares, disdainful looks, ugly comments, impatience, and even occasional willful cruelty from the adults around you. And for those of us who live or lived on this edge of dreadful expectation, an incident like the one that happened to Jarrett Farrell and his mother could quite easily kick you over into the abyss. Mr. DMFP and I have had more than a few occasions when some negative report on TH has come in--usually after a period of calm that has raised our positive expectations--and has reduced us both to a depressed state. When your daily life is reports like that, you walk mercurially, ready at a moment to leap to heights of bliss because of a minor social success or to sink to the depths of your worst expectations because another autism-bomb gets dropped in your lap.

Think about it.

1. Airplane full of people, pissed at you because your child is screaming.
2. Your life in recent memory has been littered with the looks, stares, comments, and disdain of people because of your child's behavior, people who are, one hopes, ignorant of the facts of the matter and blame you for being a crappy parent. You dread and expect it all the time.
3. Adults who should know better and whom you have informed better are berating you and your child and exacerbating the situation in front of the airplane full of people.
4. You know that if left to your own devices and with a few minutes, your child will be just fine because you know your child and know what calms your child.
5. Finally, the guy in charge makes an announcement that they're turning the plane around, and he pins the blame entirely on you.

You dive off the edge, into the abyss. You cry.