Roy Exum: To ‘Daddy’ In Seat 16-C

Friday, January 17, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

A young mother, Shannel Mouland, and her daughter Kate were flying back to their home in Canada not long ago when they had to change planes in Philadelphia. Flying with Kate, age 3, is not easy because the little girl has what is called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a complex disorder of brain development that 1 in 88 kids are now born with in America every day.

Autism, 10 times more prevalent now than it was 40 years ago, is a tremendous challenge and the one way Shannel and her husband Alex cope with it is through a blog, “Go Team Kate.” A recent post was entitled “To ‘Daddy’ In Seat 16-C” and tens of thousands have now read it as it has gone viral.

* * *


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 a fleeting moment I thought we might have a free seat beside us and then you walked up and sat down with your briefcase and your important documents and I had a vision of Kate pouring her water all over your multi-million dollar contracts, or house deeds, or whatever it was you held. 

The moment you sat down, Kate started to rub your arm.  Your jacket was soft and she liked the feel of it.  You smiled at her and she said:  "Hi, Daddy, that's my mom."  Then she had you.

You could have shifted uncomfortably in your seat.  You could have ignored her.  You could have given me that 'smile' that I despise because it means; 'manage your child please.'  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 by 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 offers to distract her, but you would have none of it.

Kate:  (Upon noticing you had an IPad)  Is dis Daddy's puduter?

You:  This is my iPad.  Would you like to see it?

Kate:  To me??????  (I know she thought you were offering it to her to keep)

Me:  Look with your eyes, Kate.  That is not yours.

Kate: Dat's nice!

You: (Upon noticing that Kate had an iPad)  I like your computer, too.  It has a nice purple case.

Kate: Daddy wanna be a bad guy? (She offered shredder to you and that, my friend, is high praise)

You:  Cool.

The interaction went on and on and you never once seemed annoyed.  She gave you some moments of peace while she played with her Anna and Elsa dolls.  Kind of her to save you from playing Barbies, but I bet you wouldn't have minded a bit.  I bet you have little girls, too. 

Not long before we landed Kate had reached her limit.  She screamed to have her seatbelt off, she screamed for me to open the plane door and she cried repeating, "Plane is cwosed (closed)" over and over.  You tried to redirect her attention to her toys.  She was already too far gone at this point, but the fact that you tried to help your new little friend made me emotional. 

In case, you are wondering.  She was fine the moment we stepped off the plane.  Thank you for letting us go ahead of you.  She was feeling overwhelmed and escaping the plane and a big, long hug was all she needed.

So, thank you.  Thank you for not making me repeat those awful apologetic sentences that I so often say in public.  Thank you for entertaining Kate so much that she had her most successful plane ride, yet.  And, thank you for putting your papers away and playing turtles with our girl.

* * *

Shortly after this blog to a stranger went viral, Kate’s “seat mate” was identified as Eric Kunkel, a businessman and married father of one from Villas, N.J. whose relatives forwarded him the post. Now he and his wife are the Moulands’ “newest” friends.

To learn more about autism, go to where you can help and support two million Americans and tens of millions worldwide who have ASD.

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