There was already a certain amount of anxiety for the Sonja Redding and her family as they boarded their Delta flight in Washington, D.C., on March 30 for a stop in Atlanta on the way back home to Omaha, Neb. They had visited the National Institute of Health in Maryland for a research study about the rare and potentially life-threatening disease that their 5-year-old son Xayvior and his older sister both have. While there, Xayvior was also diagnosed with autism.
When the engines roared and the plane pushed back from the gate, Xayvior’s mood shifted.
“I was trying to control him and calm him down. He was just not calming down,” said Xayvior’s mom, Sonja. “I could tell people were probably getting annoyed.”
Amanda Amburgy noticed too. The Forsyth County native and Delta flight attendant was sitting in her jumpseat just a few rows in front of the Reddings.
“I could see the look on his mom’s face,” Amburgy said, “and she was getting very, very anxious and didn’t know where it was going to go.”
As soon as it was safe, Amburgy approached the Reddings to help. She offered them headphones to listen to music or watch a movie but to no avail. Then Amburgy offered to hold Xayvior and give him a tour of the airplane.
“He just put his arms up [to me],” Amburgy said.
Amburgy didn’t hesitate. She scooped up Xayvior and escorted him around the plane for the next 15 to 20 minutes. Xayvior was instantly calmed, Sonja said.
Sonja and her husband were equal parts touched by Amburgy’s poise in the moment and kindness toward Xayvior and shocked at his comfort level with a stranger. It prompted Sonja to take pictures of the two together, and the images of young Xayvior hugging and kissing a smiling Amburgy when posted to Sonja’s Facebook account on April 3 became the source of a heartwarming and viral story to thousands across the country.
“I wanted to spread the message [that] kindness matters,” Sonja said.
Before their trip, Sonja “always thought there was something else going on” with Xayvior. He could be prone to meltdowns, she said, with behavior that might seem aggressive, such as scratching, pulling hair and gouging eyes. So the autism diagnosis made sense, Sonja said. They now think the sound of the plane’s engines prompted Xayvior’s meltdown.
“It’s a sensory thing,” she said.
The family has adjusted their “normal” to Xayvior’s behavior, but it can be jarring to strangers, and some don’t always react as compassionately as the Reddings might hope for.
“When he has these meltdowns, people often look at me in some sort of way,” Sonja said, “or make comments like, ‘He needs his butt whooped,’ or whatever.”
Sonja felt none of that kind of judgment from Amburgy. She was kind and sweet to Xayvior, Sonja said.
Kids are Amburgy’s favorite passengers anyways. Flight attendants keep a stash of pilot wing pins in the front galley, Amburgy said, and she’s always eager to take a willing young passenger to get one.
“It makes them feel special,” Amburgy said. “Plus, it gives the parents time to decompress and relax for a second.”
And Amburgy, 24, has no reservations toward those with special needs from her time working with Special Olympics Forsyth County while attending West Forsyth High School.
Amburgy’s kindness didn’t go unnoticed on the flight. One nearby passenger rang for Amburgy just to compliment her. He had an autistic 7-year-old son, he told Amburgy, and found her kindness toward Xayvior “refreshing”; he planned to write Delta, he said. Other passengers complimented Amburgy as they deplaned, she said.
But Amburgy didn’t feel the full force of the story’s impact until last Wednesday, when Redding posted about the experience on Facebook. Amburgy had been flying all day, but she had a moment to check her phone on a return stop in Atlanta from Little Rock, Ark.
“It had completely blown up,” Amburgy said.
By Monday, Redding’s post had more than 200 comments, almost 400 shares and more than 2,000 likes. A TV station in the Redding’s hometown picked up the story.
“I don’t know what’s considered viral,” Sonja said, “but it was crazy.”
Sonja had planned to post something about the experience on Facebook, if only in the hopes that it would reach Delta, but she felt an extra urgency after another sobering moment during their layover in Atlanta.
Sonja needed to take Xayvior to the bathroom to change him, but he resisted. She picked Xayvior up, and he bit her in the face. A woman nearby gasped, Sonja said, and “kind of made a scene.”
“It really made me feel bad,” Sonja said. “It upsets me that people respond that way without really understanding what’s going on. He’s not a bad kid, and I’m not a bad parent either.”
After that, Sonja resolved to post about Xayvior’s experience with Amburgy on Facebook.
“I hope it makes people think before they judge and try to be more understanding,” Sonja said. “Maybe even lend a hand.”
Amburgy appreciated the gesture of gratitude from Sonja. Amburgy doesn’t get recognized for her work often, she said. It also allowed the Reddings to share their story about Xayvior and his sister’s rare disease, methylmalonic acidemia, a condition that can cause acid to build up in the blood.
“It kind of just puts everything into perspective,” Amburgy said. “A lot of times, people get wrapped up into themselves when they’re traveling. They don’t really take into account [others.] For this family, this is their normal, and it’s always going to be their normal. Just because something isn’t your normal doesn’t mean that normal’s not OK. You should give everyone grace.”