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It’s Not Always About the Autism

When did “special needs” become synonymous with disregarding the needs — and safety — of others?

by
Katherine Berry

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July 26, 2008 - 8:00 am
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Seldom does a week go by anymore without autism somehow making the news. Most recently, talk show host Michael Savage scoffed at the notion that autism is a health epidemic among the nation’s children saying, instead, “In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out.”

Not surprisingly, the autism community was outraged and immediately began petitioning WOR Radio to fire Savage. The online community responded similarly. Advertisers began pulling their ads and affiliate stations dropped Savage’s show.

But Savage chose to stand by his comments, explaining in a New York Times interview:

“My main point remains true,” Mr. Savage, whose radio audience ranks in size behind only those of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, said in the interview. “It is an overdiagnosed medical condition. In my readings, there is no definitive medical diagnosis for autism.”

While there’s no denying that Savage’s initial remarks were cruel and ignorant, this situation has made one thing perfectly clear: autism is big news. It’s the latest celebrity cause. It’s the new chipotle, the disorder du jour, and now it’s a plot line on NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”

And when it comes to protecting autistic children from discrimination, everything else takes a backseat.

Consider, for instance, an incident last month involving a mother and her 2-year-old autistic child who were escorted off of an American Airlines flight after airline personnel declared the boy’s behavior “uncontrollable.” According to the airline, the child’s behavior simply compounded an unsafe situation stemming from the mother’s refusal to place her carry-on bag in the overhead compartment and the boy’s inability to remain in his seat.

Naturally, the mother’s story differs. In her telling it all comes down to the airline not understanding that, due to autism, the child had special needs to which the airline should have been more sensitive.

She claims, for instance, that the attendant repeatedly came by to tighten the child’s seatbelt because, in the mother’s own words, the child “was wiggling around and trying to get out of his seatbelt.” When the attendant reached over to tighten the child’s seatbelt again, the mother says she warned that the action would exacerbate her son’s autistic behavior. The child once again got out of his seat.

Later, the pilot himself came to tell the boy, “You have to stay in your seat, young man,” which the mother says prompted her to begin crying. That, too, she acknowledges, exacerbated the boy’s behavior, and again he got out of his seat. Eventually the pilot announced that the child was uncontrollable and the plane was going to return to the terminal where mother and child were escorted off.

The one aspect of the story upon which both sides agree: the child was, in the mother’s own words, “rolling around on the floor” after flight personnel had instructed passengers to fasten their seatbelts and the pilot prepared to take off.

While the pilot and the airline are being pummeled on blogs for their “cruelty” — and at the risk of sounding insensitive myself — I can’t help wonder when “special needs” became synonymous with disregarding the needs of others, or when the parent of a child with special needs was accorded special needs of their own.

Likewise, I can’t help wonder if the uproar would be more subdued if, say, the child on the American Airlines flight — or the children targeted on Michael Savage’s show — had ADD, depression, or oppositional defiant disorder. And where’s the uproar when a non-disabled child and her parents are ejected after the child refused to wear a seatbelt and wouldn’t get in her seat?

Answer: you can’t hear it above the applause of people who understand that safety rules require passengers to be in their seats wearing seatbelts before takeoff and that the airline owes a duty to all of its passengers to take off on time. Why, earlier this month HR 6355, the “Air Service Improvement Act of 2008,” was introduced to require airlines to address departure delays.

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