A 4-year-old boy with autism had a meltdown on a United Airlines flight, so the crew showered him with affection.
Lori Gabriel’s son Braysen Keen has autism, is non-verbal and panics in overstimulating places such as airports and restaurants. Still, the Magnolia, Texas mom felt confident about an August family trip to San Diego — after all, Braysen managed fairly well on a recent flight to Kentucky and this time, Gabriel had the support of her boyfriend (Braysen’s father) and his parents.
However, on the way to the airport, Braysen was cranky. “I figured he would sleep on the plane,” Gabriel tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I didn’t think it would turn out this way.”
Before the 3-and-a-half hour flight, the family was first to board, strapping Braysen into his seat and setting up his Kindle. But as the plane filled up with passengers, Braysen slipped out of the seatbelt and onto the floor.
Gabriel’s family, including her 9-year-old daughter, struggled to seat Braysen. “He was screaming, hitting and kicking me, and pulling my hair. I thought, ‘Everyone must hate us.’” Gabriel tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The crew allowed Braysen’s father to hold the boy on his lap for takeoff. But when the seatbelt sign turned off, the boy slid onto the floor at his parents’ feet and inched toward the center aisle.
“The floor was his comfort zone,” Gabriel tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “He lay on his back kicking the floor, which he does to feel the vibrations on his feet.” But when Braysen kicked accidentally woman’s foot, she smiled and didn’t seem to mind.
The flight attendants offered help — one drew a flower for Braysen on a napkin and the other entertained him with a puppet. “Every few minutes, they stopped by to check on us,” Gabriel tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Understanding that Braysen needed space, the crew allowed him to spread out in the aisle with his blanket and maneuvered around him when serving beverages. “I don’t ever expect anyone to work around my child,” says Gabriel.
Gabriel sat down on the floor and gave her son leg compression massages to stop the kicking. But Breyson soon scooted over to the first-class section, where he kicked a passenger.
“The man said, ‘He can kick me the entire flight — I don’t care,’” recalls Gabriel. The passenger also chatted with her son and gave him high-fives. Braysen remained in first class for most of the flight, watching videos on a flight attendant’s cell phone.
When the plane descended, Braysen’s dad restricted him on his lap. And before the family stood to leave, a flight attendant offered Gabriel a hug.
As Gabriel and her family waited on the jet bridge for their stroller, passengers waved goodbye to Braysen and the woman whose foot he had kicked, handed Gabriel a note.
“I commend you for your strength,” the message read. “Do not ever let anyone make you feel as though you are an inconvenience or a burden. He is a blessing. God bless your patience, your love, your support, and your strength. Continue to be superwoman. And know you and your family are loved and supported. —United family.”
After reading, Gabriel turned and saw the woman slip on a United lanyard.
Later, Gabriel wrote a Facebook post about the flight. “...Huge thank you to United Airlines, they accommodated [Braysen’s] needs, made sure we were all OK, worked around where he choose to sit,” she wrote. “To the lady that wrote me this note in seat 7D thank you, you may not know how much that means to us when we feel defeated...”
United Airlines tells Yahoo Lifestyle that two of the crew members, including the off-duty employee Camille, have professional and personal experiences with autism. The carrier also partners with the Special Olympics and offers training to assist passengers with intellectual disabilities.
“The note said it best,” a United Airlines rep tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “On behalf of the United family, we want Lori and her family to know they are loved and supported. We are proud of our crew and all our employees for the kindness and care they show our customers every day and this is a beautiful example of the impact that can have.”
Gabriel will remember those who displayed compassion toward her son. “I wish I could tell them how much it meant — they touched our hearts,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We’ve never been treated with such kindness.”