Travel can be stressful, exciting and tiring for everyone but for my autistic daughter, these emotions are heightened, drawn out and can become overwhelming. We now have a clear preparation process that starts weeks in advance including timetables, packing lists, scenario planning and fun games involving the things we may see or hear or taste or smell on our journey and at our final destination. We hope that this planning has turned the ‘sick with worry’ into ‘butterflies in her tummy’ instead.

Now she is 11, she is much more aware of what will help her to cope, turn the anxiety into excitement and that it is ‘OK’ to feel worried and nervous, ‘OK’ to need downtime on arrival, and ‘OK’ to be monosyllabic during the duration of the travel if that keeps her calm and makes the experience a pleasurable one for her.

Brilliantly in the last couple of years, airlines and airports have really improved their offering when it comes to assisting autistic passengers by understanding the needs of autistic travelers, employing ways to help them through the sensory hell that is an airport and simply making them feel more in control of their travel. We take advantage of this service where available because when it is done well, it makes our daughter feel ‘calm, less anxious, actually quite excited’ instead of wishing the whole horrid onslaught would end.

On our recent little trip, we experienced the best and the ‘could do better’. The experiences were so different that my daughter and I wanted to collaborate on providing the following review (my daughter is proofreading all of these words to ensure I am being truthful and accurate!).

So, firstly Edinburgh Airport, oh how we love you!

We have used this service a couple of times and it just keeps getting better. Simply knowing that we are booked in for assistance helps our daughter to feel calm and less trepidatious.  The consistency and familiarity of the service means that she gets more confident each time: fantastic preparation for the future when she is a feisty independent traveler! As far as we have experienced, the offering for autistic travelers is tailored to the needs of the individual with a calm, quiet understanding of what may assist each person – it is most definitely not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Our daughter wears her ‘hidden disability’ lanyard throughout the duration – it is sunflowers on a green background and simply indicates to all airport staff that the traveler has a hidden disability so they can offer assistance in a subtle, helpful way when needed.

We pre-book with the airline and directly with Special Assistance at Edinburgh Airport as far in advance as possible (give them loads of time as it really helps with their planning). Then as we are approaching the airport, we give them a call and they meet us at a quiet point (to avoid having to come face-to-face with the gauntlet of hundreds of criss-crossing wheelie suitcases). This time we met Bruce. What a man! If there is an ’employee of the century’ award, we really hope Edinburgh Airport awards it to him. He is one of those people that even at 5am has a smile on his face, an air of quiet confidence and the ability to make a nervous child relax. Brilliantly he chatted to our daughter directly addressing her and not us (quite right too!). He wasn’t pushy, too loud, too chatty but just right. He told her clearly what we were going to do and pointed out the hoards of travelers in security as we glided past. We took a short cut to avoid the shops – ‘too many smells, too many lights, too many people’ – and he escorted us to the special assistance area which, although situated in the main waiting area, is a little haven of calm. At the gate, the Easyjet staff prioritised our boarding and tagged us on with another passenger receiving assistance as a wheelchair user. We were taken to the plane first and could find our seats without the usual barging, cramming of suitcases, tutting, harassed latecomers etc. By the time we got on the plane, our daughter is far calmer and prepared. On landing & reaching our destination, our daughter requires far less down time when we have used Special Assistance but it also helps to reduce the anxiety about the trip home too…

So, now we come to the ‘could do better’.

You would have thought that Heathrow would lead the way on their assistance for passenger with hidden disabilities but unfortunately not, they have a lot to learn and I seriously hope they get autistic adults and children’s input on this. Yes, they have downloadable leaflets to help with pre-arrival, yes, they have a Special Assistance desk and yes, they support the hidden disability sunflower lanyard, but our experience was that their assistance is ‘one size fits all’ whether you are for instance a wheelchair user, have crutches, dementia, autism or other requirement. Not one member of staff who dealt with us seemed to understand what the lanyard meant, nor did they treat my daughter with the personal, gentle service we have experienced at other airports.

We arrived to print out our boarding passes at the FlyBe desk and I asked about our next steps according to the special assistance we have booked. We were asked if we still needed the wheelchair(!). I politely explained that we have not requested a wheelchair, we have requested assistance for our autistic daughter who does not use a wheelchair. I have to explain her sensory needs to this member of staff as their blank face tells me they have no idea what I am talking about. This is all while my daughter is getting more and more nervous as the airport is huge and overwhelming. Eventually we are directed to the Special Assistance desk. Here they log us in, take my daughter’s boarding pass and keep it on their desk! Why? Surely they can understand that for a nervous flyer, taking their boarding pass away from them is a very odd thing to do. We are told we will need to sit and wait for about 30 minutes before someone can help us… Pardon? Yep, that’s right, we are told to sit in this holding area for 30 minutes. This is unacceptable, the whole point of special assistance for an autistic traveler is to reduce worry, anxiety and sensory issues. I complain and ask them to speed it up or simply give me a ‘pass’ so I can take my daughter through security myself quickly. After about 15 minutes we are called forward and taken with another passenger receiving assistance as a wheelchair user and his family. For my daughter who does not like the idea of being in a group of strangers, this is a challenge but she copes. At no point do any of the helpers speak to my daughter, at no point do they put her at ease and when she asks to use the escalators and not the lift, they say ‘why, what do you want to buy?’. Again I explain that for my daughter, small spaces like lifts with strangers is pretty anxiety inducing and can we just use the escalator and rejoin the others.

Ok, I could go on in greater detail (and Heathrow, I welcome the opportunity for my daughter and I to give you our report in full), but suffice to say some of the other issues were: my daughter being scanned at security without them waiting for me, they helped her stand in the right position but of course this meant physical contact (all the while she is wearing her lanyard, if they had been trained surely they would not scan an unaccompanied minor without their parent with them); we are again asked if we want a wheelchair to get to the gate; when we are taken to the gate, we are put in a buggy with a flashing light and siren (hmmm noise and bright lights, perfect!); at the gate the representative from FlyBe is told to call my daughter forward to board first, she promptly forgets and we endure a crowded bus ride to the plane where we battle to get to the seats…

Guess how my daughter felt? Guess how long it took her to calm? Guess which airport she doesn’t want to fly from ever again?

So, night and day.

It doesn’t take much: it takes some knowledge and some training but also some human interaction and understanding. Heathrow, I hope you are listening. Bruce, I hope you get that ‘Employee of the Century’ award.

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