We’ve had a lot of discussion over masks on airplanes lately as U.S. airlines have eliminated exceptions to wearing facial coverings. But an incident on Southwest Airlines forces us to grapple with whether kicking a three-year-old autistic child off for not wearing a mask a step too far.
Southwest Removes Autistic Three Year Old For Not Wearing A Mask
Alyssa Sadler was planning on flying from Midland, TX to Houston on Monday with her three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. According to Sadler, her son is autistic and cannot keep a face mask on.
The flight left the gate, but then returned after a flight attendant insisted the child put on a mask.
Recalling the incident, Sadler told ABC13 in Houston:
“They’re going over the security safety features and all that, and the flight attendant walks by and tells me that he has to put a mask on. So, I try to put the mask on him. He is three and has autism and sensory processing disorders, so he wouldn’t keep the mask on.”
But a flight attendant returned and insisted the child put his mask back on.
“He was screaming. He was throwing a fit. He was screaming no, no, no.”
Pleading made no difference. A doctor’s note made no difference. The captain was summoned and personally instructed the boy to wear a mask. He would not. Sadler then said that the captain humiliated her son over the loudspeaker:
“So the captain went back to the front, then he went over the loudspeaker and said that he had a non-compliant passenger that refused to wear a mask and follow the policies so they were heading back to the gate.”
Back at the gate, Southwest “wrote up” her son for non-compliance with its mask policy.
Southwest Airlines Addresses Incident
Southwest issued a generally statement on masks, refusing to address the incident in any specificity:
“Southwest Airlines requires all Customers over the age of two to wear a face covering or mask while traveling to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19. We communicate this policy to all Customers at multiple touchpoints throughout the travel journey, so we regret any inconvenience this family experienced. Customers are informed of the policy on our website during booking, in a pre-trip email sent prior to departure, and during a required acknowledgment that’s part of the Customer Health Declaration Form which appears during the online check-in process on the Southwest app, Southwest.com, and Southwest’s mobile website.
“If a Customer is unable to wear a face covering for any reason, Southwest regrets that we are unable to transport the individual. In those cases, we will issue a full refund and hope to welcome the Customer on board in the future, if public health guidance regarding face coverings changes.”
Reasonable Reaction From Southwest?
Sadler insisted her problem was not an ideological one.
“I agree with the mask policy. I wear my mask everywhere I go. It’s not an issue, but you’ve got to have some kind of exemption, especially for people with disabilities.”
Is that a reasonable expectation or must Southwest insist upon a no-exceptions policy? Sadler said the boy did not wear a mask on their outbound flight from Midlands to Houston last week.
After dealing with an autistic child on a flight last year who looked like a perfectly normal boy but could not be controlled, I struggle with this one. I have little sympathy for ideological opponents of masks who feign health problems. This case, it seems to me, is much more difficult. It’s a three-year-old, for goodness sakes. I have enough trouble keeping a mask on my three-year-old and he has no health issues.
It seems to me that this kid was also kicked off more because of his kicking and screaming…oh what a horrible situation this must have been for Sadler. The fact that he was not asked to wear a mask during boarding or onboard on the outbound segment also set up false expectations.
Sadler plans to drive home. She insists that asking autistic children to wear masks is cruel and unreasonable:
“No three-year-old, who is autistic and has sensory processing disorder, is going to put anything on their face. He’s supposed to wear glasses. I can’t even get him to wear his glasses to help him see. He just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t like things touching his face, so he’s not going to put a mask on.”
We can debate that. You’re welcome to leave your opinion below. There’s something about this particular story that really troubles me. I understand that the “rules are rules” and one exception opens the door to many. Generally, I don’t think airlines will encounter successful legal challenges for their exception-free mask policy. At the same time, I do not see why going from age two to three suddenly renders a child a public health threat and am much more comfortable with an exception for young children than adults.
Is the Southwest Airlines mask policy toward autistic children reasonable?