Businessman Befriends Autistic Girl on Flight, Makes Everyone's Day

Shanell Mouland and Kate (Photo courtesy of Shanell Mouland)The mother of an autistic toddler,  whose open letter to a kind stranger she sat next to on a plane made headlines, has reconnected with the man who made her daughter smile during a two-and-a-half-hour flight.

On Jan. 6, after spending a week at Disney World, Shanell Mouland and her family were on a flight from Orlando, Fla., to Philadelphia, to catch a connection to their hometown of New Brunswick, Canada. Mouland's husband and their 5-year-old daughter, Grace, sat in one row, while Mouland and 3-year-old Kate, who has autism, sat behind them. Mouland was a bit nervous — depending on Kate's mood, the young girl's behavior can range from affectionate to hysterical, so a patient and understanding seatmate would be crucial.

In an open letter titled, "Dear Daddy in Seat 16C," posted on Thursday on her blog "Go Team Kate," Mouland writes, "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 … 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."

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"Any time we go out in public, we have to plan for anything because Kate has sensory issues and when she's overwhelmed, her behavior may be unpredictable," Mouland tells Yahoo Shine in an exclusive interview. "Most people warm up to Kate, but interacting with her can be off-putting for those that don't understand autism."

Luckily, Kate's seatmate was Eric Kunkel — a businessman and married father of one from Villas, N.J. — who for the duration of the flight, entertained Kate by allowing her to fiddle with his iPad and playing a video game with her. The pair talked about dogs (Kate will be getting a service dog soon) and Kate's experience meeting Winnie the Pooh and the Disney princesses at the theme park.

"I travel a lot for work, and Kate was, by far, the most well-behaved kid I've sat next to," Kunkel tells Yahoo Shine in an exclusive interview. "Shanelle is also an incredible parent — she didn't apologize for Kate and she shouldn't have — but she was very attentive to her."

Kunkel even tried to distract Kate with her toys when, at the end of the flight, she began screaming to remove her seatbelt. He also allowed the Mouland family to exit the plane ahead of him. "Thank you for letting us go ahead of you," wrote Mouland. "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."

A few days after the flight, Kunkel's stepson and his girlfriend spotted Mouland's blog post while perusing a site for autism and forwarded it to Kunkel, who couldn't believe the coincidence. He then contacted Mouland on Facebook to thank her.

Mouland is grateful for the experience and says she created her blog to teach others about autism, but she was the one who learned a lesson. "I assumed that a man in a business suit wouldn't be patient with Kate," she says," and I'm so fortunate to have been proved wrong."

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