“I’ve never in my life been in a situation where I’ve had so many understanding people.”

Anyone who has ever traveled with young children knows how challenging it can be. Oftentimes there is crying, meltdowns, and a never-ending parade of “Are we there yet?”

It can be exhausting and completely overwhelming at the best of times. And at the worst of times? It can be utterly defeating.

Lori Gabriel was flying home to Texas while on a family trip to San Diego in August 2019, when she experienced the worst of times. Her 4-year-old son Braysen, who has autism and is non-verbal, was in full-blown meltdown mode. And the plane hadn’t even taken off yet.

What Happened On the Three-Hour Flight Home

“He just wasn’t in a good mood. Right before takeoff, he just slipped out of his seat belt. We were all trying to get him back in his chair but it was impossible,” Gabriel told PEOPLE. “I’m restraining him with my arms and my legs and he’s just fighting us. I thought we were going to get kicked off of the plane.”

His father also tried to get him into his seat but to no avail. That’s when a flight attendant “flew” into action. But not in the way Gabriel was expecting.

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Rather than kick the family off the flight, she responded with empathy and kindness, asking how she could help. “They allowed me to hold Braysen in my lap,” Gabriel said. “He was screaming, hitting, and pulling my hair the entire time, but we were able to take off.”

Once they reached cruising altitude, Braysen was given free rein. He lay down in the middle of the aisle, calmed by the plane’s vibrations, as the flight attendants happily worked around him. They even went so far as to use trays rather than carts when it came time to deliver drinks.

Passengers Pack On the Compassion & Grace

But it wasn’t just the flight attendants who showed Gabriel and Braysen some much-needed grace, fellow passengers did too.

As Braysen wandered up and down the aisle, going between coach and first class, many of them played with the boy, showing him pictures on their phones, giving him high-fives, and letting him sit at their feet.

Even kicking people’s seats didn’t bring out the worst. “He can kick my chair, I don’t care,” one first-class passenger said.

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By the time the plane landed, Gabriel thought she had seen the best humanity had to offer. That is, until she was handed a note.

It was written by an off-duty crew member who sat across from the family during the flight.

“I commend you for your strength,” the message read. “Do not ever let anyone make you feel as though you are an inconvenience or a burden. He is a blessing. God bless your patience, your love, your support, and your strength. Continue to be superwoman. And know you and your family are loved and supported. —United family.”

How Acceptance and Support From Strangers Made All the Difference

Lori shared her gratitude to United Airlines in a social media post that took off, quickly going viral.

In it, she wrote: “Huge thank you to United Airlines they accommodated his needs, made sure we were all ok, worked around where he chose to sit.” She gave a special shout-out to flight attendants Joseph Nation, Heather Bursid, and Rhonda, saying “they couldn’t have done a better job.”

United Airlines tweeted a response, praising their crew and the passengers onboard: “It sure sounds like Braysen and your family had a great flight. We are happy that our crew was able to make it an enjoyable experience. We are overjoyed to see that we have such loving and supportive passengers on board as well! We look forward to seeing Braysen again soon!”

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According to the CDC, about 1 in 44 kids has autism. Even with it being so common, parents of autistic children are often met with misunderstanding, judgment, and disdain. Which is why Gabriel’s experience meant so much to her.

“I’m used to getting lots of dirty looks and comments,” Gabriel told reporters. “I never would expect anybody to go out of their way for me or my family. It meant more to me than they could ever imagine.”

It meant so much, in fact, that it’s given her “a lot of hope for the future.” If there is anything that we can all take away from this, it’s that a little empathy, kindness, and acceptance really do go a long way.

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