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Thank you for NOT choosing United.

This Christmas, my Mom & Stepdad decided to fly Alex and me down to California for an impromptu visit. In the past, I have always found Christmas Day to be a good travel day, since most people are home with their families. Well, this year, I was wrong-so very wrong.

I want to start by saying we had many problems and simply awful treatment during our travels as a special needs family this Christmas…both to and from California. When I had some free time to reflect and seethe a little over the injustices and outright rudeness we were subject to during our journey, I really wanted to get to the *root* of the problem. So many people involved, so many crappy things happened. But who to blame? (Yes, I know, this is very mature of me.) I finally settled on United Airlines. Let me tell you why.

Although average people, like you and me, were rude to us during our travels, they’re not responsible for making my day easier; they haven’t all been trained in customer service. That’s life. Although the airport itself didn’t make it easier for my son and me to get around without complications, it really wasn’t their job. And although the service people (who provide wheelchair escorts and the like) refused to make exceptions because of our situation, they were truly just doing what they were paid to do, and they do contract to the airlines, after all.

United Airlines, however? We PAID them for a ticket. We expect customer service, because they are *trained* and obligated to give it to us. It’s their JOB to make their customers happy. When I booked our flight I made it very clear that I had a special needs kid with aggressive, hyperactive tendencies, who needed a wheelchair because I don’t have a stroller big enough. I have worked customer service, and I personally know that they should have and could have worked harder to MAKE it happen. And yes, if you were wondering, they did have the authority, because all of the aforementioned airport people contract to United, and are therefore responsible for doing United’s bidding. Eventually, *I* made it happen, so I know it was possible. Ergo, I blame United Airlines.

**(Side note: Wondering why a wheelchair? Wheelchair + Ipad = quiet, happy boy, easy to push around airport until flight boards. Alex running free through the airport = lots of running away, touching, lack of safety, and manhandling that may have resulted in aggression, tantrums, and general mayhem that would simply make air travel even more stressful for EVERYONE. Trust me, I tested my theory and knew it would work. And it did, once we got the wheelchair.)**

So back to United and their suckiness (which is not a word, I made it up just for them): I arrive Christmas day to board our flight. We already have our boarding passes, just one bag to check, already paid for. Check the bag and get the wheelchair and we’d be on our way! After a confusing couple of minutes, I chose the “additional services” line to see if that was where we got the wheel chair. Many moons later, the same two agents are helping the same family. Alex begins to tantrum and freak out, and no one even looks up. Another agent busies herself off to the side, strategically NOT looking at me. I try joining another line, with a screaming autistic child, for whom I was supposed to have a wheelchair already, in order to avoid such troubling behaviors. Said line does not move. Tantrum continues, hitting and self-harm begin. I search for agents, with pleading eyes and a distressed face as my son begins to flop on the ground and hit himself. Again, no one looks up. No one appears to care. United agents, fellow travelers, not one person gave me a second look.

I decide to change my strategy, to interrupt an agent helping another customer. This just results in the agent & other traveler shooting me dirty looks and continuing to completely ignore me. I eventually walk over to the front of the check-in line and plead my case to the people in line with my screaming child attached to my waist. One couple, the couple in front, tells me to go ahead and go next. The rest of the line just looks put out and irritated. Two nice people-Yay!

So I finally reach the place to check my bag and speak with a real person, where we stand for yet another 5 minutes until I grab the attention of an agent who obviously has no time for me and my screaming child. She starts to brush me off until I manage convince her that my son needs the wheelchair United PROMISED us. In an OMG-I-can’t-believe-this-lady-is making-me-go-out-of-my-way kind of manner, she says that fine, she will call for a wheel chair, but it might take “like 10 minutes or so.” Then she told us to stand to the side. Really? Do you know what it’s like to ask an autistic child of my son’s nature to sit or stand still for any period of time?

15 minutes later, we had our wheelchair, the Ipad was in full swing and Alex was calm. The rest of this leg of the trip there was quite pleasant (aside from the security line) as I rolled him though the airport, stopping here and there to replenish snacks and drinks that were necessary for the trip. My only complaint at this time was that, when boarding the plane, United did not even call an option for people who needed a little extra time to board…but they gave their first class passengers and premier execs red carpet treatment! Also, when it came time for our section to board, people actually had the gall to cut in front of my kid – who was IN A WHEELCHAIR – in order to get on the plane faster. Wow. Thank you, humanity. Merry Christmas.

Thank God the plane ride was a breeze…Alex handled it like a champ! So this was all a very crappy experience, but I sort of let go of it as a disgruntled “I’m working on Christmas” thing. I had hoped the way back would be easier. Hah. Wishful thinking.

If my experience at PDX was bad, heading back from SFO took the cake. My mom decided to go in with us this time to help me move things along quicker. I smiled as she loyally walked back and forth, trying to find us a wheelchair after we had been waiting for over 10 minutes (after being treated, yet again, like crap, in the check-in line). My mother was determined to *make* it happen for us. *That* is the kind of customer service United airlines should have offered a special needs family. It’s a simple thing. I didn’t ask for 3 guides, a personal nanny, and a free ticket. I just wanted a freaking wheelchair to borrow to make everyone’s life easier.

So an agent with a cool wheeling-chair with a seatbelt (even better) starts to stroll right past me, and I yell out “Is that for Alex Zelinka?” (Ya gotta be quick with these people.) Startled, the wheelchair guy looked at his device and said “Oh, yeah.” I smiled. Great. Let’s do this. He gets us through security (where Alex throws a perfect tantrum that actually allowed me to throw the wheelchair-bringer a “See? This is why I need a wheelchair” look.)

To his benefit, the one I refer to as “Wheelchair-bringer” was quite kind, but I bristled when he said he could not leave the wheelchair with me. We were 2 hours early for our flight. Seriously? He told me not to worry, once I got to the gate, I could request another wheelchair directly from United, and it would all be fine. Okay, I thought, that doesn’t sound too horrible.

I put on my nicest smile when we got to the gate and asked for that wheelchair. I was immediately turned down and told to go to Customer Service because – and I quote – “we don’t do that.” Great. Customer Service desk, huh? This should be good.

Wheelchair-bringer dude stayed with me, bless his heart, as I approached the desk and knew immediately that this was not going to be a fun conversation. The agent looked up from her computer with a bored look on her face, bid me good afternoon and asked what she could do for me. (Her rehearsed greeting reminded me of one of those agents at a call center you have to deal with when trying to pay a bill or something.) I began to ask for what I was promised when I was, again, immediately interrupted. She told me that Ma’am, we don’t do that and, besides wheelchairs are for people with disabilities.

Huh. No kiddin’? I interjected with the argument that my son was autistic with very high needs that are considered a disability-she stopped me, told me not to YELL at her and that it was not her *problem* that I had this kid and that she would call her supervisor so I could yell at him.

I was, for lack of a better word, flabbergasted. Not only had I *not* yelled at her, but her verbal assessment of the situation was everything special needs families hate about the world. I stood there with my mouth open, as tears filled my eyes. I was positively shaking with anger and frustration. Every fiber of my being wanted to tell her exactly how I felt about her attitude, and to yell it so at least I wouldn’t be accused of something I didn’t do.

She made the phone call and told me to go stand over to the side because she had other people to deal with. My mouth was still open, and it was all I could do to force myself to shuffle away from this woman without launching myself over the desk and smacking her face. I turned to the wheelchair-bringer and simply asked, “did I yell?” He shook his head to let me know that no, I had not yelled at this woman. About a minute passed when I remembered that I had some informational cards in my purse that explained Autism to people. These cards were designed to raise awareness in exactly this type of situation. I shakily pulled 1 out, walked over to her, and said “this is for you.” I then obediently walked back to my corner where I was told to stand & wait.

About 5 minutes later, I hear the customer service lady’s voice clear, and she says to me, “I have a son with Autism.” Wow. It took the last of my patience to keep my big, sarcastic side shut and just simply, knowingly say, “Yeah? Is he the quiet type or is he kinda hard?” She answered, “He’s hard.” I nodded my head. Then she said she was sorry, which was nice to hear.

Right about then the supervisor showed up with a puzzled look on his face. When the situation was explained (which only took about 30 seconds of me pleading my case), he turned to the wheelchair-bringer, told him to leave the wheelchair with the nice lady and her son and that he would be personally responsible for making sure it was returned when I boarded my flight. After he apologized to me, he turned to the Customer Service lady with sort of an angry look on his face and said “Is that all?!” She replied yes and, after a curt smile and a nod in my direction, accompanied by a glare in her direction, the supervisor stormed off, as if the agent’s lack of ability to resolve such a minor situation was unacceptable. (Well, I must say, I felt similarly.)

So ultimately, justice was served. I rocked a Customer Service lady’s world without stooping to unnecessary violence. United Airlines redeemed itself (almost). I was able to use the wheelchair for the remaining hour or so until Alex and I had to board our flight, which also went pretty smoothly.

But, yeah. I don’t think I’ll be flying United Airlines anytime soon. Sorry, guys. Most of your employees need a lesson in common courtesy, & maybe some sensitivity training. I’m sure they’re not all bad, but you could have fooled me.

**Final Note: In case any of you are wondering about whether or not the wheelchair thing was really necessary, and/or whether or not someone with a more severe physical disability was deprived because of our demands, the answer is yes, it was necessary, and no, we did not deprive anyone. Because I am who I am, I asked the final wheelchair-bringer at PDX whether or not he felt our needs were sufficient enough to request a wheelchair, and if there was some sort of shortage I wasn’t aware of. He said “Lady, when someone flying an airline asks for a wheelchair, we don’t question it. We bring a wheelchair. Trust me, there are plenty.

So there it is. Apparently, people are not abusing the wheelchair privilege, and we were just as entitled to help as anyone who requested it, regardless of the reason behind such a request.**

I rest my case.

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The Magic on the Mountain

Recently, my husband, my son (Alex), his babysitter (Illy) and I spent 4 days at Meadowood Springs’ brand new ASD Family Immersion Camp with 9 other families. How do I condense 4 amazing days of such valuable information in just a page or so to keep a reader’s interest? Well, I’m going to attempt the most basic summary I can…forgive the choppy writing for the sake of preserving space!

Day 1: Dust, the Connector, and comfort zones:

I am not a camper. I don’t like dirt & the other various treasures that come with “roughing it.” Despite this, we drove out to Eastern Oregon anyway because I knew it would be a wonderful experience for my son and for my family. In short, the camp staff and the ASD counselors (Eric & Steve) took us under their wings and not only got us settled in, but immediately started to work on helping our family in various areas (especially when Alex took off in a swirl of dust & confusion the minute we arrived). We were given anDSC09286.JPG excellent tool called the Connector (http://www.connectorrx.com/connectorrx/), which helped us to keep Alex safe while still allowing him to have fun, connect with us on a whole new level, expel some energy & ultimately, learn new things. I could write so much more on this -just check out the site!

Dinner time resulted in a tantrum (as I knew it would), but no one scowled or scolded, and Eric even helped me calm down by using the Connector to bring Alex closer to me, which calmed *him* down. (Bonus: Alex didn’t tantrum at mealtime *once* during the rest of our stay at the camp!) The parents’ first lesson that night with Eric & Steve happened to be about stepping out of our comfort zones.

Day 2: Teamwork, swimming, and parenting:

After a delightful, tantrum-free breakfast, the parents had another lesson with Eric and Steve, where we all got to know each other a little better, and learned the importance of working together as a team, even though our parenting styles might be different. Additionally, we also learned to practice the art of perseverance, patience, staying calm & constant, and asking for help. During our sessions, the kids and their caregivers got to go roam the grounds, where Alex got to go canoeing, hiking, ride down a zip line, play in a creek & even spent a little time in the craft/toy room. There were so many wonderful things to do at the camp!

DSC09311.JPGLater that day, after some super-fun swimming pool bonding (which was great for our little “fish”), we had some 1-on-1 time with Steve, where we learned to encourage communication from Alex…even when the answer to his requests happened to be “no.” We got to practice a technique where we place Alex’s hands on our cheeks (so he is driven to look in our eyes) when a request is being made. With his hands on our cheeks and a smile on our face, we can confirm to him nonverbally that, regardless of the request or demand or whatever, we are not mad at him. In a similar way, we can also convey concern when he is doing something inappropriate. Another little gem we learned with Steve was the new concept of side-along “time-outs,” which included sitting beside Alex when he could not calm down.

Day 3: New stuff, mousetraps & trust:

DSC09363.JPGOn this day, Alex actually tried NEW things to eat at mealtimes while he sat quietly by our side! During our daily session, the parents got to learn a little more about trust by literally leading their partners through mousetraps. I think the most important thing I took from this session was that it was important for us to allow our family to enter into and overcome obstacles as they arose, and to trust each other in the process. It is in our nature, especially as special needs family, to be wary of “rocking the boat,” but we cannot and will not hide our kids away from the world in order to keep everyone comfortable. We have to take chances and guide our kids through these inevitable “mousetraps” of life. If you aren’t growing, you aren’t learning, and you certainly aren’t living.

On the evening of this 3rd day (our last full day at the camp), we got a chance to have a really good talk with Alex’s babysitter, Illy, who is going off to college in the Fall (dangit)! Every day she was exposed kids all over the spectrum, and she became more intrigued by the puzzle that is Autism. The experience ultimately helped her decide to pursue some studies in Autism during her college career. She is a beautiful person and this is a beautiful thing.

Day 4: Mermaids, Butterflies & Happy Birthday, Alex!

Our last day at the camp was bittersweet. At breakfast, Alex was served his new favorite blueberry muffin cake with candles while everyone sang to him. Our time at the camp came slowly to an end as we had our last session, where we played one last game that reminded us how very like butterflies our children are to the world. Eric also read to us a story about Mermaids in a world of Giants, wizards and dwarfs (http://www.livinglifefully.com/flo/flobemermaids.htm), which brought the whole experience home.

The adults then shared about how the camp had changed our families for the better that weekend. Many didn’t want to leave & have to go out into the real world without Eric & Steve! I know I didn’t! Lots of touching things were said and there were very few dry eyes in the room. There was sad stuff, happy stuff & hard stuff, and it was all good.

But one comment stood apart from the rest, and it came from one of the folks that actually run the Camp. The man speaking teased me about my frustration with all the dust and dirt that was stirred up every time we hiked around the trails (non-camper here)! Then, with tears in his eyes, he explained to me that there was something very special in that DSC09299.JPGdust, that it touched everyone who came there and somehow managed to change their lives for the better in many ways. Magic dust, he called it.

The Magic on the Mountain touched all of our lives during this trip. We all came back still covered in it…and we wore it proudly. When it washed off, we know it left some of its magic on us.

Thank you to Steve & Eric (who came to us from the Pace Place), the staff at Meadowood Springs’ new ASD Family Immersion Camp and the “Magic on the Mountain!” We will never be the same. And that is a very, very good thing.

DSC09404.JPGThe Zelinka Family – Kristi, Duane & Alex – with Illy,

at Meadowood Springs ASD Family Immersion Camp

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