Some behaviors or characteristics that might be typical for a traveler with autism might be misinterpreted or met with suspicion at an airport, such as diverting the eyes, avoiding touch, and repeating phrases that are heard or seen, which at an airport, could mean repeating warning signs about knives, explosives, or guns stored in luggage. If left unexplained, this behavior may cause unnecessary anxiety at security checkpoints and can escalate into misinterpretations and verbal and physical confrontations with airport security staff.
Fortunately, airport escorts can be available to guide individuals through the airport, which can be useful to people with disabilities such as autism. In the United States an unticketed parent or personal assistant can receive a permit to pass through security at the originating airport. Some exchange programs may also arrange for all the participants to fly together as a group.
Dennis Deebaudt, who does autism training for law enforcement and emergency responders, suggests the following tips:
- Carry an info card or handout (also in the host country’s language) explaining about autism, typical behaviors and how best to interact with you, which can be given to security authorities if needed. An example can be found on Deebaudt's website, "Autism Risk and Safety Management."
- In the United States, TSACares hotline +1 (855) 787-2227 can provide assistance in planning for going through airport security.
- Visit the departure airport ahead of time to get familiarized with the ticketing counters, security lines, and luggage areas. If you are a youth or a first-time traveler, participate in a mock boarding experience that some larger airports in the U.S. provide. Remember that international airports will be different.
- If having a family member at the airport would be helpful, you may be able to request a special pass from the airline that allows an unticketed person to accompany you to your gate but not board the plane. Most airlines provide assistance to passengers with disabilities in boarding, deplaning and connecting with their flights as requested.
For Mai Ogino who has autism and has traveled internationally often, she has had negative experiences flying, but also positive ones where flight attendents were receptive and supportive.
"For most Autistic people, flying with all of its many loud announcements and large airport, sitting next to strangers and many smells and sounds, is very difficult to cope with for us. I was flying from Los Angeles to my home in Japan waiting for my flight very nervously, but the gate agent came to escort me to the right gate right away. I didn't have to deal with huge line of many travelers. On the plane, every crew member were understanding of my needs. When the airplane was shaking a lot, I got scared and I said so to one of the crew who explained the reasons that comforted me a lot. He smiled at me and made me calm down. Sometimes the simplest things are such a big deal. "