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CAL’s Handling of Autistic Child on Flight Ignites Conversation on Inclusivity and Awareness

The founder of Bethesda Community (a Catholic community for persons with disabilities) says, “airline incident with autistic child could have been avoided.”

The incident aboard a Caribbean Airlines (CAL) flight involving an autistic child and her family was “sad indeed” but founder/coordinator for the Bethesda Catholic Community, Saira La Foucade said, “there are a couple of learning points”.

Last Sunday Rishi Ramoutar, posted on Facebook about what happened when he and his wife, mother-in-law and three-year-old nonverbal autistic daughter were on a 9 p.m. flight from Tobago to Trinidad on August 18.

The child’s discomfort during the flight, unbuckling her seatbelt and the flight attendant’s insistence she be seated in her own seat and held down caused the encounter to devolve into conflict. Another flight attendant in a calm manner intervened to assist.

Ramoutar said in his post: “As the parents of a special needs child we know how traumatising holding her down while she is kicking and screaming would be. We understood that she ideally needed to be in her own seat (which she usually is) but in the moment having her grandmother hold her and strapping her in, seemed to be the safest option for her and best for those around who would no longer have to deal with screaming and their seats being kicked. At no point in time were we offered an extender belt or any sort of alternative that could have alleviated the situation.” Airport security met Ramoutar and his family when the flight landed.

La Foucade told The Catholic News the crew were not made aware of an autistic child on board before the flight and this information could have lessened the situation.

“As a parent it is your duty to inform officials whenever you take your child with a known disability, especially invisible/intellectual disabilities to a public place like an airplane, to assist not just with the physical challenges but also the specific challenges of the person.”

She added that the parent is the “expert” in their child and can take this into consideration when planning activities.

La Foucade observed that taking a late-night flight after vacation “is setting your child up to having a meltdown”. She highlighted the impact on the autistic child of environmental conditions: limited light, changes in temperature throughout the time, “and possibly included physical and emotional tiredness”.

She suggested that parents can prepare their Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) for strange situations using YouTube videos and storytelling. “Video modelling is a technique used especially for autistic persons as they learn better visually,” she advised. She referred to an effective video in the children’s cartoon Peppa Pig that has an episode with the family going on vacation.

If there are plans to travel abroad, take a drive around the airport to familiarise the PWD. “Establishing a new item into the routine, hence the drive-by, making it longer each time and using different times,” La Foucade said.

The airline also has a responsibility. “When I wanted to go to Tobago the first time, I had arranged for a behavioural therapist and Autistic Society of Trinidad and Tobago to conduct a training for CAL as a precaution and they refused as their ‘staff was competent’. They assigned a wheelchair and an aide,” La Foucade said.

Although her autistic son Matheaus has mobility and did not require a wheelchair, this was the airline policy. Joseph said they assured her a review would be done.

“The second time I travelled to Tobago the aide was assigned and a wheelchair was reserved for him, but they kept it in the back of the room ‘just in case’. The policy was revised but wheelchairs were still there ‘just in case’. This to me pointed out they still did not understand intellectual disabilities. Again, I offered to arrange training for their staff but was met with a ‘thank you, no thank you reply’.”

La Foucade said what occurred on the flight in 2023 spoke volumes about CAL’s management not establishing policies and procedures to facilitate PWDs. “They don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there are international airlines that have set policies and procedures,” she said.

La Foucade said CAL went too far in the treatment of the parents. She hoped the public uproar would be an eye opener and lead to the airline training its staff and setting policies and procedures, and an apology would be issued.

“In this age of social media and information spreading like wildfire they should be more proactive and at this time, they should be reactive and do something in the public to encourage other parents to want to fly with CAL,” she commented.

Reporting by Lara Pickford-Gordon