A New Jersey mother and her son with severe autism were stranded in Aruba for 2 weeks after the teenager had an episode on a plane home

By Emma Tucker

A New Jersey mother and son with severe autismwho were vacationing with their family in Aruba, were stuck in the country for two weeks after the boy suffered a pre-takeoff collapse on their return trip, the family said.

The family’s ordeal ended with them returning home by sea rather than air after an advocacy organization for people with invisible disabilities coordinated their return trip with a cruise line.

Jamie Greene, her three children and her boyfriend, Carlos Pacheco, flew to Aruba May 7 for a family vacation. Greene said she was not worried about her son Elijah, 15, with autism, traveling by air as he had flown at least twice in the past.

Elijah is diagnosed with severe, nonverbal autism, a subset of the disorder that prevents him from speaking in full sentences, Greene said.

Elijah started having what Greene described as an autistic episode — triggered by sensory overload and fear — once the family boarded a United Airlines plane on May 17, they flew back to New Jersey, Greene told CNN.

Elijah started shouting the word “toilet,” indicating he wanted to go to the bathroom — a confined, safe space for him with no windows, Greene said. “We would take him to the bathroom, maybe three or four times, he would sit there, calm down and come out,” she said.

As the plane prepared for takeoff, Elijah’s episode worsened. He began pinching his mother and tried to headbutt her, Greene said, at which point a flight attendant told the family that the pilot had decided Elijah couldn’t fly on the plane. .

Greene says she doesn’t blame airline crew members for asking the family to leave the plane for safety reasons, but she hopes her story will galvanize the airline industry to that she becomes more accommodating to people like Elijah who have unseen disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

“We agreed with them,” Greene said. “We don’t want to say that they mistreated us on the plane. It’s not their fault, I just think the airlines don’t have any policies or procedures in place when these incidents occur.

In a statement to CNN, a United Airlines spokesperson said, “Safety is our number one priority and in this case, since we fly daily from Aruba, we have been working to find and offer United flights. alternatives the same week to customers who have been impacted. »

According to the US Department of Transportation aviation policy consumer protectiononce a passenger has already boarded the flight, “airlines are not permitted to require the passenger to disembark, unless removal of the passenger is required for reasons of safety, security or health, or that the removal is due to the illegal behavior of the passenger”.

United Airlines did not ban Elijah from flying, Greene said, but told him he had to follow passenger rules after boarding the plane. The airline gave the family travel credits to rebook their flight home, she said, but they decided against taking another flight for fear Elijah would have another episode. under the same circumstances.

Greene also explored the possibility of getting a prescription for a heavy sedative drug that Elijah could take to board the plane and remain seated without incident. However, Greene says airline officials have informed her that it is illegal to bring someone on a plane who is sedated, unable to walk and fasten their seatbelt on their own.

“Airplanes are not included. There are so many things that can trigger someone with special needs on a plane and there is no policy in place if that happens,” Greene said. She added that certain accommodations such as allowing Elijah to acclimatize on the plane before other passengers or moving him to a quiet place would have helped to make him more comfortable.

Advocacy organization brings Elijah home

A week after the episode of Elijah on the plane, Greene’s boyfriend and her two other children returned home because they had to go back to school. At this point, she directed her plea for help to Facebook out of desperation, detailing their experience in hopes her message would reach the right people.

His message eventually caught the attention of Julian Maha, the founder of CultureCity, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to sensory accessibility and the acceptance of people with invisible disabilities. The organization works with Carnival Cruise Line, which is the first cruise line to be certified “sensory inclusive” by KultureCity.

The non-profit organization trains sites, organizations, small businesses and others on how to better interact with people with sensory needs. Maha told CNN that KultureCity is set to work with a national airline — which he declined to identify — to make it the country’s first sensory-inclusive airline.

“The entire Carnival guest-facing team has been trained to understand and support guests with sensory/cognitive needs.” Carnival’s website says.

The cruise line was more than willing to help Greene and Elijah get home and arranged for his brother to fly to Aruba and resume cruising with them, Greene said. Maha said Greene and Elijah’s experience is “very common”, which puts off many families from travelling.

There are no airline policies in place that help crew members deal with people with invisible disabilities, which are not immediately apparent, Maha said, adding, “This is a very generalized disability training rather than specific sensory needs and invisible disabilities”.

“I don’t blame the airline in terms of policies and procedures,” Maha said. “There is never an excuse for dangerous behavior because it puts everyone at risk.”

Maha said the trauma of the experience and the fear of it happening again ultimately kept Greene from wanting to take another flight.

Greene was also burdened with “the sheer exhaustion of having to explain to someone that even though your loved one looks like a normal, neurotypical individual, they have all these challenges that the world doesn’t see because they don’t have the ‘look different,’ Maha added.

A Carnival spokesperson told CNN in a statement that Elijah, Greene and his brother boarded the Carnival Horizon ship on May 31 and arrived in Miami on June 5.

“Given Carnival’s close partnership with the nonprofit KultureCity, our team has a deep understanding of the needs of people with sensory and invisible disabilities,” said Vicky Rey, vice president of Guest Care & Communications at Carnival Cruise Line. “When the organization contacted us about Elijah’s situation and we realized we could get him back to the United States on one of our ships, we didn’t hesitate to offer help. “, continues the press release.

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CNN’s Liam Reilly and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.

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