Autism FAQ: What to do when people aren’t nice


We were at a family gathering, and my aunt refused to sit next to my child at the table. I was so hurt, I just lost it, which made things worse (to say the least.) Any ideas for how to handle these scenes in the future?

Yuck, I am so sorry. Let me tell you how I learned from a similar situation.

Matthew was about 21 and the two of us were flying from California to Pennsylvania after Christmas break. I was exhausted from the holidays (like most parents) and  was on edge because Matthew did not like to fly with me.

“I don’t see other regular men my age sitting with their mothers” he told the flight attendant earnestly as he took his seat in 17C. I took mine in,19B where I could keep my eye on him, just in case. In the “special needs” community, we call this shadowing, and while I was an expert, it was still a little unnerving. Still, we’d had success with this arrangement on past flights. Matthew enjoyed looking at his page worn atlas and an old high school yearbook while listening to music on his portable CD Player.

I watched anxiously as the plane filled up. It seemed at first that there would be a space between Matthew and the aisle seat, (ideal) but then a harried woman got on the plane at the last minute and sat next to him.

Please, God. Let her be nice.

As soon as I was able, I got up to make sure all was well. Matthew was looking out the window peacefully with his head phones on.

“Hi Matthew,” I said, and he waved awkwardly. The woman sitting next to him looked at me suspiciously, the corners of her mouth drooping down from years of scowling.

Shortly after I sat down, she rang the call button. I watched as she talked to the flight attendant, gesturing to me and shaking her head. I got up to investigate.

“Are you his mother?” the woman asked. “Because if you are his mother, I don’t see why I should have to sit next to him. You should have to sit next to him.”

She stood up and jerked her purse from the overhead bin. I was well practiced in keeping my cool during such misunderstandings, but the sight of her looking so desperate to get away from my son enraged me like never before.

“Is he bothering you?” I asked, feeling all at once like I couldn’t breathe.

“Not really, but… ”

“I know he’s a little different,” I whispered hoarsely, tears suddenly flowing out of control, “but he’s 21, and he want to be independent.”

Fellow passengers glared incredulously at the woman and one from 10a insisted on switching with her. He was sociology major from Bucknell who looked at Matthew’s atlas with great interest and humor while I took deep breaths in an attempt to stop crying.

The remainder of the flight was eerily quiet, as if everyone knew that something very sad had transpired. Everyone seated around me smiled at me sympathetically-the nicer they were, the more my tears flowed.


“I’m sorry for the mix-up,” the woman said to me later at baggage claim, “I just figured you would want to sit next to your son.”

“I know,” I managed, too tired to think of a meaningful retort. “I’m just feeling really emotional.”

I thought of the many reasons that the woman reacted the way she did to “the situation” on the plane. Perhaps she’d had a bad day, a bad childhood, a mean cat that scratched her as she left for the airport.

Or maybe she just thought it was weird that my I wouldn’t sit with my clearly quirky son. Perhaps she, too, was worn out from the holidays, and she just didn’t need 5 hours of awkward.

The good news is that the nice kid from Bucknell thought that Matthew was just great, and told me he couldn’t wait to tell his roommates about the cool kid her met on the plane.

The even better news is that since Matthew’s diagnosis, I’ve been fortunate to have met many, many more people like him, and just a few like the woman in 17B.

God Bless her.

So, yes, we all lose it from time to time, but my advice is this:

–Show don’t tell/yell
Hold back from confronting (jerky) people, and show them instead how you interact with your child.  This takes tremendous self control and acting skills, but you will become an expert, and you will teach many people who just don’t get it.
–Take a step back
Keep negative interactions with (jerky) people in perspective. They have back stories (just like you do).
I have a good friend whose daughter also has a disability. We call and share these unfortunate tales and it helps so much.


This is how I do it. Any other suggestions from the rest of you?

About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


  1. Deborah Kwan says

    I could totally relate to the airplane story – just got back from visiting my dad and brother … Would LOVE to know if you have ever had issues with bowel control?!? OMG!
    Miss you- gotta catch up sometime soon…. Once again : YOU ARE AN AMAZING writer!!

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