'It can be easy to write off these individuals as different and not interested, but that’s certainly not the case,' she said. 'Everyone has something to tell you. Everyone has a story.'
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 9, 2021. It has since been updated.
Rachel Romeo was about to begin the second leg of her long flight home after a conference in Helsinki, Finland, when a flight attendant approached her with a warning. She would be seated next to a 10-year-old boy with behavioral issues, they said, and as the flight was fully booked, there was no way they could move her to another seat. Little did they know, Romeo—a speech-language pathologist (SLP)—would end up changing the lives of the young boy and his father during the eight-hour journey. The story of their chance encounter also touched the hearts of many online after Romeo described the events of the long flight in a Twitter thread.
I just had such an affirming experience. On my 8hr intl flight back from a conference, I sat next to a father/son. In broken English, the father began to apologize/warn me that his ~10 yr-old son had severe nonverbal autism, and that this would like be a difficult journey. 1/— Dr. Rachel R. Romeo (@RachelRRomeo) August 28, 2019
As soon as Romeo took her seat, the child's father preemptively apologized on behalf of his son—who he said has autism—as he warned her that it was likely to be a difficult journey. "I just had such an affirming experience. On my 8 [hour international] flight back from a conference, I sat next to a father/son. In broken English, the father began to apologize/warn me that his ~10 yr-old son had severe nonverbal autism and that this would [likely] be a difficult journey," she tweeted.
Therapist Passenger Helps Nonverbal Boy with Autism Finally 'Talk' to His Dad https://t.co/QU6PkbuEOO #autism #asd pic.twitter.com/4h6Nbb1Ljk— GoldenHatFoundation (@KateWinsletGHF) August 30, 2019
Romeo told the man not to worry as she was used to supporting children with various needs due to her line of work and took out a speech that she had planned to write on the flight. "Challenging behaviors began even before take-off: screaming, hitting me, and grabbing for my things. The father repeatedly apologized, but did little else," she tweeted. "I asked him how his son preferred to communicate. He didn’t seem to understand. Perhaps this was a language barrier, but I think instead the child had very little experience with communication therapy. I put away the talk I was working on & asked if I could try. He nodded."
“It’s easy to write off kids with autism as different & uninterested in communicating, but that’s not the case. Everyone has something to tell you. Everyone has a story.” Using symbols, she calmed a nonverbal autistic boy on a plane. His dad was awestruck. https://t.co/jvi8BPrYM0— Phyllis Fagell, LCPC (@Pfagell) September 1, 2019
"It suddenly occurred to me that wherever this family was coming from, I don't think this child had a lot of services like we do in the U.S.," Romeo, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Children's Hospital, told The Washington Post. She first tried "pulling up some standard images for basic nouns on [her] computer" but soon realized that screens seemed to bother the child. "So I summoned my god-awful drawing skills and tried to create a (very!) low-tech board," Romeo tweeted. "And by god, it clicked. I made symbols for the things he was grabbing, for his favorite stuffed penguin, and for his dad. He took to it very quickly. I introduced way more symbols than I normally would, but hey, how often do we get an 8-hour session?!"
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a specific type of assistive technology that can benefit people with autism of all ages by promoting independence, expanding communication, and increasing social interactions.#WAD2021 #AutismMyk pic.twitter.com/4CxPIoL6SR— Debal Adhikari (@adhitman) April 2, 2021
"By the end of the flight, he had made several requests, initiated several times, & his behaviors had reduced quite a bit," Romeo revealed. "The father was astounded—clearly no one had ever tried an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) approach with him. I gave him the paper & showed him how to use it, and he nearly cried." The boy's father seemed excited to learn about this new form of helping his son to communicate, she said, adding that she hopes the pair will continue to create symbols together as she considers the ability to communicate to be a fundamental human right.
As I face the upcoming job cycle and the nearly endless imposter syndrome of academia, this was precisely the reminder I needed about why I love studying language/communication development. It was a good day to be an #SLP! 8/8— Dr. Rachel R. Romeo (@RachelRRomeo) August 28, 2019
"This was the human desire for communication, pure and simple. To connect with another person and share a thought. Communication is a basic human right, and I was overjoyed to help someone find it. What a privilege and a gift," Romeo tweeted. "It can be easy to write off these individuals as different and not interested, but that’s certainly not the case," she said later. "Everyone has something to tell you. Everyone has a story."