Tom Gutteridge: A plane-load of children and a mother apologising for her autistic child

Journal columnist Tom Gutteridge on how his pity turned to admiration as he saw parents comforting their autistic child on a flight

Low-cost airline Ryanair
Low-cost airline Ryanair

This week Ryanair announced a new “business class” option. A fortnight too late for us: the Gutteridge family has already returned from its holiday in the sun.

Mind you, I don’t think very many businessmen travel regularly between Luton Airport and Murcia. An awful lot of children do, though. Planeloads of them.

As we’d been warned about Ryanair’s infamous customer service, I’d bought all the extras: fast track security, ‘Priority Q’ boarding, seats with extra legroom near the front – I’d have prebought the wine and crisps if they’d been offered on the website.

We’d actually purchased every single business class option, at rather less than the new upgrade price. That Michael O’Leary is a clever businessman.

The moment we boarded, we were surrounded by children. In the next row were twin babies (so very cute in their pink shawls till they started crying). Across the aisle, the mother of a terrible two was bribing her daughter with chocolate. Terrible twos are not as bad as terrible sixes, though, and there were plenty of them, including one boy who insisted on kicking the back of my seat.

Three quarters of the plane must have been under the age of ten. It was by far the noisiest flight ever. And the happiest.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can break my holiday mood. When I’m on vacation, I enjoy every second, even the two and a half hours in an aircraft seat that doesn’t recline.

Despite the bad press, Ryanair’s service is impeccable. There wasn’t a single person in line at check-in (mind you, the lady said they’d all been and gone two hours before – Jo and I are always fashionably late for flights). The priority queuing system works fine, and the onboard flight crew have welcoming smiles and a terrific sense of humour. Which they clearly needed – it sounded like primary school assembly before the head teacher walks in. I can’t imagine what a businessman would have thought of it.

Then, just after takeoff, a terrible sound rose above the hubbub. A piercing child’s scream. Directly in front of us, a 10-year-old boy was staring out of the window and wailing.

“Take me down now. It’s a mistake. Get the plane down on the ground.”

The boy was hysterical.

“I’m going home. Never going on holiday again. Get me down now.”

Izzy was sitting with noise-cancelling headphones watching How To Train Your Dragon. Every few seconds she emitted a loud cackling. For one awful moment I thought she was laughing at the boy’s high-pitched screech, but she was oblivious, lost in the fantasy of Hiccup and Toothless.

As the boy’s father tried to soothe him, the screaming grew louder. Eventually his mother stood and turned to the rows behind her, regret lining her tired face: “I’m really sorry, he’s autistic”.

We nodded. We understood.

“Sorry to spoil your flight. We’re coming back on a different day, so you won’t have us on the return.”

I admit that at first I felt a terrible pity for this woman. How did she cope? What happens when the child gets older? Why did she bring him if he was going to be so upset? What will the rest of the week be like for them?

Then I thought about my reaction, and realised that I was almost certainly wrong. She and her husband deserved admiration, not pity. They had nothing to apologise about.

Sure, they may not have expected their son to have been born with this condition. But they had clearly come through their guilt and grief, and had accepted it, and were coping with it as a family.

In fact, they were coping admirably. I watched the father wrap his son from head to toe in a comfort blanket. The familiar darkness took away the clouds and the sky and the Ryanair plane. Dad wrapped him up and hugged him closely until the nightmares went away. When the blanket came off, and the plane began its descent, the boy was smiling.

These people are taking their child on a wonderful family holiday, just like all the rest of us on board. And she has to apologise? Hardly.

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