Is United Airlines Really Discriminating Against Autism?

It’s May 2015, and here we are yet again faced with a story about airlines and autism.
In the past year, it seems that these stories have increased in number and taken on a life of their own.

Contributing to the cause of this phenomenon is the media outlets’ exposure as well as the fact people have actually increased their autism awareness.

At this point, if you are the parent of a child with autism, you might consider unsubscribing from my site, and I would understand; nevertheless, I am asking you to hear me out before you decide.

United airlines

What we do know 

This story is about a mom who took her high-functioning daughter with autism on two connecting flights: Orlando-Houston and Houston-Portland. According to the mom, the family has gone on many trips before so one naturally assumes there is a level of flight experience there.

After unsuccessfully trying to convince her daughter to dine in Houston airport, they proceeded to board a 4.5 hours United flight. The child was hungry, and there were seemingly no supplies or provisions for her need.

During the flight, the mother repeatedly asked the flight crew for a hot meal for her daughter. The sandwich offered to her and that she purchased from the regular economy meals was refused by the daughter.
The mother who has an advanced degree in communication then happened to mention how the child would scratch either herself or others if she didn’t get food, so she proceeded to demand a steaming hot meal from First Class even though she had paid for and was sitting in Economy. The mother is a seasoned traveler (platinum status ) on United which means she has flown 75k miles this year alone so she must know that you can’t purchase the food from First Class and that the portions are limited.What she was basically asking the crew to do was to break airline rules and perhaps deprive a full paying fellow traveler of their dinner.

Fast forward over 20-30 minutes of commotion; a meal from first class was served, the girl managed to calm down, but the flight was diverted to Utah where the family was escorted off the plane and put on a different flight at the expense of United to transport them home.

The mother proceeded to make a huge fuss; going on numerous morning talk shows saying that she plans to sue the airline for discrimination.

Regarding food

United like most airlines has a Disability Desk one can contact before flying. It is there specifically for advice and special accommodations.
While There are several choices passengers can purchase when flying in economy class; the food served in business or first class is not purchasable. Never was!

Also; Houston Airport is a large airport with multiple eateries that passengers can either dine in or take out to bring on flights.

What we don’t know

Did the mother notify the airline that her daughter with special needs needed a unique accommodation which is a hot meal?

Did the mother actively purchase any food in Houston to bring onboard for her daughter to eat?

Did the mother bring the right equipment to keep food warm for her daughter since that seems to be at the root of this controversy

?Did the mom ask for the sandwich she purchased to be reheated once it arrived cold?

Were there previous incidents of the daughter having of meltdowns involving scratching that the mom knew about bur didn’t share with the crew?

What was the mom’s plan B once a meltdown incurred-ABA, medicines?

Was the mom the only adult at the scene or were there other family members that could have helped diffuse the situation?

On a scale of 1-10 How much of a  commotion was there on board to convince the pilot to divert the flight? A five, an eight, a ten?

Regarding cost and publicity 

Diverting flights is an expensive matter for an airline, not to mention the PR nightmare that ensues so I’m confident that the decision wasn’t taken lightly or on a whim.

Our first-hand experience with hundreds of flights on United and its affiliates is that the crew does its best to avoid situations like these which end up as a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Space allocation per person has decreased over the years, so the chances are that we are closer physically to our fellow travelers than we’ve ever been before. That is important to remember when there is a disturbance. If one is perceived as threatening, certain security protocols will kick in.Is United Airlines Really Discriminating Against Autism? JEFF

Talk to anyone about violence is a huge no no!   

So the question that arises is, did any of the fellow passengers view this family as threatening in any way?


There have been numerous documented incidents of flights interrupted because of terrorism jokes and a threat of violence.

We’ve worked with our son for years explaining how his jokes can be misconstrued. Here the mom (inadvertently or intentionally) told the crew that there was a chance someone would get hurt if the child’s needs were not met.

Talking nicely REALLY helps – seriously. Crew members, like the rest of us, have good and bad days. Asking politely in a pleasant tone and with a smile, works far better than being demanding or threatening.

Food is not readily available!

On many flights we’ve been on, our choices for purchase in Economy and even some in First Class ran out.The food in Business and First is rationed, so there aren’t generally extra portions for travelers in economy to help themselves to.Not even if they offer to pay for it.

If this young girl were my daughter and needed hot food as part of her accommodation, I would make darn sure she had it!

If I couldn’t bring it from home, I’d make sure that I had adequate time in the airport to buy it and pack it in a thermos to keep it hot.

When we fly, I pack everything I need for a flight: food, entertainment, medicines (including first aid kit) even a flashlight to retrieve objects lost on the floor. Based on previous experiences I know I can’t expect the sometimes understaffed crew to hover around me during the flight.

Moving forward – what should be done

Crews need to be continuously reminded and trained in de-escalation in such situations while staying polite.

Understandably it isn’t always an easy task when facing hundreds of people. The mother is asking for autism awareness training for airline staff which may or may not have helped in this case.
Understanding what our children need and catering to the needs are two distinct matters and may not always coincide.

I believe that the greater responsibility lies on our shoulders. As parents to children with autism, we need to start differentiating between accommodating ‘needs’ and ‘wants’, along with an understanding of how our behavior impacts on our children.

In this case, the child needed hot food (which was supplied), but the girl wanted the First Class food. The mother was inadvertently teaching her child that this behavior is acceptable by causing the commotion, demanding the food and referring to potential violent consequences.

She was insisting that the crew break the airline regulations for her! What will stop this being mimicked or repeated in the future?

After looking at the situation as it has been presented, ironically this time around I have to side with United; the airline which we have used for the past two decades and with whom we have a love-hate relationship.
No, in our case not because of discrimination issues just the usual complaints about flight delays and lost luggage.

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