Airport Security with Autism

We’ve been traveling in airplanes with Oliver since he was 2 months old. He loves to travel, is comfortable in different places — sleeping, eating, exploring — and travel is one of the defining shared experiences of our family life and of Oliver’s education.

In recent years, though, the airport security screening experience has become a trigger for him, causing extreme anxiety and, a lot of the time, a meltdown that’s out of his control. It’s made travel more stressful for him, and for us.

The key issue has been that Oliver has had to go through the scanner by himself, leaving him across a great divide, in stressful, noisy, chaotic environments, from me or from Catherine. “Lost and lonely,” he describes it. Every new experience became worse because of the memory of all that which had come before.

We didn’t really know what to do, except to grin and bear it and try and get everyone calmed down as quickly as we could.

And then Ethan came into our lives.

And all of a sudden we started getting invited into “special services” security lines. They were still hell to pass through, but at least the lead-up to hell was abbreviated.

And then, during a particularly stressful, noisy and chaotic passage through Heathrow this October, a kind security officer said “would you prefer a manual search?”

Yes!”, Catherine and I replied in unison.

We were ushered far away from the madding crowd into a quiet room with two friendly agents who did a manual physical search of Oliver and Ethan. It was calm. They were patient and communicated directly with Oliver. It was a very positive experience.

And so, on this weekend’s trip to Montreal, we resolved that was the way we were going to fly. We were bolstered by the helpful CATSA website Special Needs section that reads, in part:

Passengers with developmental or intellectual disabilities such as autism or Alzheimer’s disease can be screened without being separated from their traveling companions. If you need assistance, please inform the screening officer when you arrive at the checkpoint.

And so, passing through Charlottetown Airport on Thursday I simply told the officer “this is Oliver, he’s on the autism spectrum; we’ll need to stay together and he’ll need a manual search.”

They readily agreed, and forthwith Jeremy, who would be searching Oliver, invited me to walk through the screening machine while Oliver walked through beside and around with Ethan in-hand. He then went through a careful physical search of Oliver, communicating as he went through every step, working hard to respect Oliver and to establish trust. It was a dream compared to what we were used to. Oliver was happy. I was happy. Wow.

And tonight, heading back home through Montreal’s airport, we did the same thing. Here we had the added benefit of a special services security gate, so we were saved the wait and, again, I simply asked for a manual search and that we stay together. And, again, after a brief wait we were both guided around the screening machine; Oliver was searched by an officer with skills the equal of Jeremy’s, and then given a place to sit with Ethan while I went through a search. And, again, no stress. Happy travelers.

I wish someone had told us years ago that such an approach was possible, as it would have saved many, many stressful episodes – The Great Tokyo Meltdown of 2013 comes to mind.

And so I write this with the hopes that other travel companions of those on the autism spectrum might find it while Googling for a lifeline.

Oliver was watching over my shoulder as I wrote this post, and signed off on (and corrected spelling and grammar!) everything I wrote about him.


Neil Strickland's picture
Neil Strickland on December 6, 2015 - 23:40 Permalink

I'm glad that it all worked out for you, Oliver and Ethan. Many individuals (including aircraft security) don't understand that people with autism or those on the spectrum respond differently to stimuli than the rest of us.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 3, 2017 - 12:44 Permalink

In the year since writing this post I’ve been dismayed to find that not all airports are as flexible as Heathrow, Montreal and Charlottetown. Toronto Pearson airport is lacking a special services check-in counter (which meant that we had to wait for 45 stressful minutes in line at the check-in counter) and their accessible security line seemed completely ill-equipped and surprised by the notion that someone with autism might need special services.