An Albuquerque family is upset following two flights back home from vacation in which they say Southwest Airlines flight attendants were rude and insensitive to their son, Achilles, who has autism. Now they’re asking the airline to make the situation right and train their employees better concerning how to handle people with autism and disabilities.
The Noriega family’s vacation started out like any other. “We went to like, Boston, New York, Maine, Vermont. We went through all of New England, basically. We had a wonderful trip. It was a great experience,” says Gabino Noriega, Achilles’s father.
But on the family’s journey home to New Mexico, things would take a turn for the worst. On not one but both legs of their flight, they encountered airline employees who were not at all understanding of their 9-year-old son’s condition and caused a great deal of embarrassment and stress for the family.
Because Achilles has autism, he struggles with sensory issues and behavioral issues that many other children don’t. Waiting is a difficult thing for him to do, especially when it concerns waiting for an uncomfortable or painful stimulus to stop. None of us like to hold it when we have to use the bathroom, but for a child with autism, this can be downright excruciating.
So when Achilles needed to go to the bathroom during the flight, the Noriegas knew they needed to act soon. Because the seatbelt light was on and they weren’t supposed to get out of their seats, they flagged down a flight attendant for permission to use the facilities.
“He started crying and shaking. His whole body was shaking because he was trying so hard to hold it,” says Nina Noriega, Achilles’s mother.
But the flight attendant, apparently, didn’t care about the child’s frustration. Rather than allowing him to use the bathroom or apologizing that she couldn’t let him leave his seat for his own safety, Nina reports that the woman simply said, “That’s not my problem. You’re just going to have to wait.”
Achilles was forced to relieve himself in a cup when he could no longer wait to use the bathroom, an event that was somewhat traumatizing for the child and upsetting for the entire family. The only other option, his parents say, would have been for him to simply wet his pants.
“That was the most embarrassing moment that we’ve had as a family,” says Gabino.
After the horrendous stress and embarrassment of the first flight, the Noriegas were hoping the second leg of the journey would go more smoothly. When Achilles had to use the bathroom again, they were just grateful that the seatbelt light wasn’t on. Gabino and Achilles stood up and began making their way toward the front of the plane, where the bathroom was. That’s when they were stopped by another flight attendant.
Gabino tried to explain that Achilles needed to be escorted to the bathroom, but again, he was made to feel like his concerns and his son’s needs weren’t valid. Gabino reports that the flight attendant said, “It doesn’t matter. After 9/11, no more than one person is allowed toward the front of the plane.”
After they arrived home, the Noriegas attempted to reach Southwest Airlines customer service over the phone but didn’t have any luck, so they went online to find help. A representative told them they’d have to wait seven to ten days for a response, and they’re still waiting to hear back.
Learn more about this upsetting situation in the video below.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?