Campaign for better assistance for Autistic fliers

23 October 2016

Dear friend,

We arrived home from the UK today. It was the first time we have requested assistance during a flight. In the past I have always believed that our big lad wasn't "bad enough" to need support. Stupid really but I think many parents just don't want to make a fuss and try and deal with situations themselves. However, if you have been following the blog you will have seen that after a blog post about flying and an e-mail exchange with KLM support asking for specific assistance for autistic travellers (not just being grouped in with travellers with mobility problems) we were offered a new type of assistance.

The big lad was nervous the night before and talked to me about not wanting to be seen as a queue jumper (bless him). He was also very anxious that we would be split up and did not want to be assisted alone. I assured him that I would not leave him and that he was entitled to help. We also discussed how this would not only benefit him but it would also help lots of other autistic people who fly too.

The morning of the flight we arrived at the airport and were directed to the desk. The member of staff was friendly but did ask, in front of the big lad, what is wrong with him? She proceeded to say that she would 'let us' all go together. At this point he had a slight panic but I reassured him I would not leave him.

The assistant arrived quickly. She told me she had only been working there 6 weeks. She was really good with my big lad and chatted with him putting him at ease. Unfortunately she took us to the wrong gate to begin with but we soon arrived at the correct gate. A small hiccup.

On entering the security baggage check we were allowed to go through the barriers and straight to the front. The queue was extremely long (autumn holiday) and this was perfect for my big lad who was becoming stressed by all of the people. However, when we entered another employer came over and told the assistant that it is policy that we have to wait in the queue there (a real jobsworth). I told the employee that that was silly as it defeated the object of our type of support and that for people with autism waiting in a queue with lots of people was extremely stressful. She said; OK for today but that it was airport policy and in future we would have to wait.  

There was a quick sort of luggage and removal of electronics and liquids (I was feeling quite stressed at this point) and then through the machine. Unfortunately the security people asked permission to check my big lad. I asked them to wait until I was present and mumbled 
My son has autism...
(I hate having to do this!) He handled it all surprisingly well!

The rest of the queues etc went without any problems as we went straight through passport control and also through the gate without question. This was a much better experience for my big lad who arrived at the gate much more relaxed than usual, despite the hiccups. All in all a success. 

On our return flight, another business class traveller asking if we were 'priority' when boarding (he obviously thought we weren't). I anticipated that someone might be waiting for us when we landed, however, there was no assistance given. When we arrived at passport control I mentioned to a member of staff that my son had DPNA code and required assistance. I was just guided to the passport line and given directions to the desk for support. This was a shame but thankfully the queue was not too long! 

Gaps in the current system are:

  • Staff have little if no awareness of the needs of autistic people; particularly around difficulties waiting in queues and being around a lot of people.
  • There needs to be a way that staff can identify autistic passengers, a lanyard or badge for instance. This would also help other travellers see they have priority.

  • Airports need to look at their policy for assistance with respect to autistic people. Autistic people should not be made to queue or be split from family members.
  • Security need to be aware that many autistic people do not like to be touched by strangers or indeed anyone. 
  • Do not ask a parent What is wrong with..?
  • No support was given on the return journey.

KLM have been excellent in arranging this support and in discussing these issues with me and I am really pleased to be able to give my feedback. I really hope that we can make a real difference for all autistic travellers. Rather excitingly, they are beginning a project to help travellers with additional needs that will involve staff training and using a visible sign for DPNA travellers. 

So what did my big lad think? 

It was better, not having to wait in the queues, there are a lot of people and I get a full head. This was better. But I don't want people to think I am a queue jumper! 

I don't expect the changes will happen overnight but I will be interested to see how things have progressed when we fly again at Easter.

Autistic families, don't be ashamed afraid to ask for support!

Thank you KLM for listening and for going the extra mile to help autistic people. It is brilliant to have such a big airline taking this issue on.

Now we need Airports such as Schiphol to take on these initiatives and develop airport wide policies. 

Autistic travellers deserve more understanding rather than just being grouped in with physically disabled people. 

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