The second leg of Rachel Romeo’s flight home from a conference began with a warning: She would be seated next to a boy with behavioral issues, a flight attendant told her, but a full flight meant she couldn’t relocate.
Romeo woke up in Helsinki on Tuesday and flew to London en route to Boston, from where she would immediately travel to yet another conference. She said she walked to her seat, sat down next to the boy, and took out a speech that she had planned to write on the flight.
The boy’s father preemptively apologized on behalf of his son, who he said has autism. Romeo, 30, said she told the man not to worry and that she was used to children with various levels of functioning because she’s a speech-language pathologist — a communication expert who treats speech disorders.
Then the boy started to scream, hit her, and rock back and forth, Romeo said. At one point, she said, he grabbed her drink and reached for the lemon.
Romeo said she asked the father how his son communicates, but he didn’t seem to understand the question. (Romeo declined to share the pair’s names, but she said the boy appeared to be about 10 years old.)
“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 United States," said Romeo, a 2011 Penn grad and postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Children’s Hospital. “So I put away my stuff and tried to make a very low-tech communication board.”
Speech-language pathologists work with clients on augmentative and alternative communication, which encapsulates all the ways that people communicate without using words. So for several hours of Romeo’s eight-hour plane ride, she drew symbols on the back of her airsickness bag and pointed to the objects they represented: the boy’s dad, his stuffed penguin, and the lemon he had grabbed from her drink, to name a few.
Romeo had first tried to teach the boy by pulling up images for basic nouns on her computer, but she said he seemed distracted by screens. When she used a pen and paper, though, he picked up the meanings fairly quickly and became less distressed. Instead of grabbing her drink, Romeo said, he pointed to the lemon.
The boy’s father seemed excited to learn about this new form of helping his son to communicate, Romeo said. She said she hopes the pair will continue to create symbols together, because she considers the ability to communicate to be a fundamental human right.
In tweets that have been shared widely, Romeo wrote that the ability to help someone connect with another person and share his thoughts was a privilege.
“It can be easy to write off these individuals as different and not interested, but that’s certainly not the case,” Romeo said later. “Everyone has something to tell you. Everyone has a story.”