Autistic Child Finds Unexpected Best Friend On Flight Home

| by Jonathan Wolfe

For all businessman Eric Kunkel knew, his recent flight from Philadelphia to Maine was going to be a trip like any other.

But as he sat down, he found himself sitting next to a talkative, bright-eyed young girl. This little girl seemed to take an interest in him. She rubbed the soft fabric of his suit and said “Hi Daddy, that’s my mom,” while pointing to her mother sitting on the other side of her.

Rather than ignore the girl or only engage her momentarily, Kunkel decided he’d talk with her and entertain her for a while. Two hours passed while Kunkel and the three year old girl enjoyed each other’s company.

After landing, the girl’s mother, Shanell Mouland, couldn’t help but feel grateful for the kindness shown to her daughter Kate by this stranger. Kate is autistic, and flying is normally a very stressful experience for her. But thanks to Kunkel, the flight was easier than any other before. When Mouland got home, she decided to write a thank you note to the man and post it on her blog called Go Team Kate. The touching story found in the note has now been read over 51,000 times.

"Whenever you go on a plane and you have a child with autism, it’s kind of unnerving,” said Mouland. She recalls being nervous when Kunkel -- suit, business documents and all -- sat down next to her and Kate. “I thought, ‘This is not the kind of person who is going to want to interact with a 3-year-old with autism,'” she added.

She couldn’t have been more wrong. Here is an excerpt from her now widely spread thank you letter.

"You could have shifted uncomfortably in your seat. You could have ignored her. You could have given me that ‘smile’ I despise because it means, ‘manage your child please,’” Mouland wrote. “You did none of that. You engaged Kate in conversation and you asked her questions about her turtles. She could never really answer your questions, but she was so enamored with you that she kept eye contact and joint attention on the items you were asking her about. I watched and smiled. I made a few polite efforts to distract her, but you would have none of it.”

Mouland reports that she and Kunkel’s family’s are now good friends. After all, you can never have enough open-minded people around you -- especially when raising kids with disabilities.

“People like Eric, that’s who I want my kids to interact with,” Mouland said. “I want people to raise their kids with that kind of understanding.”

Dear 'Daddy',

I don't know your name but Kate called you 'daddy' for the entire flight last week and you kindly never corrected her.  In fact, you didn't even flinch as you could probably tell that she was not confusing you with her own 'daddy' but instead making a judgment regarding your level of 'safety' for her.  If she calls you 'daddy' then you better believe she thinks you are alright. 

I sat Kate in the middle seat knowing full well that there would be a stranger sitting next to her for the duration of this flight.  I had to make a quick decision and based on her obsession with opening and closing the window shade I figured she might be less of a distraction if she sat in the middle.  I watched the entire Temple basketball team board the plane and wondered if one of these giants might sit by Kate.  They all moved toward the back. She would have liked that, she would have made some observations that I would have had to deal with but she would have liked those players.  I watched many Grandmotherly women board and hoped for one to take the seat but they walked on by.  For...
[Read the whole thing at Go Kate Go]

Sources: Daily Mail, New York Daily News, Go Kate Go