Pól Ó Conghaile: Do Irish airports provide for passengers with hidden disabilities?

“My son loves transport and loves going to the airport, but he quickly becomes overwhelmed.

“Oh boy, I end up slapped, bitten, kicked… it’s no fun in the security queue with everyone watching you wrestle a four-year-old who only minutes before was the best boy ever.”

Those are the words of a mum describing an experience she had in an airport with her son, who has Autism Sensory Disorder (ASD). Talking with her this week has given me a new perspective on travel stress, but also a positive insight into Irish airports.

This mum recently signed her son up for Dublin Airport’s ‘Important Flyer’ wristband (01 814-4117; [email protected]), she told me – a service that allows staff to identify him as someone who may need extra assistance at security and other potential stress points (e.g. check-in or passport control).

“It was like having a backstage pass,” she says. “Even when we got off the bus at the plane steps, we could walk past all the passengers and get on board without queuing…”

ASD is one of many “hidden” disabilities that have a major impact on the lives of those who have them. Epilepsy and acquired brain injuries are others.

You or I may assume people with these conditions “look fine”, but they can find busy airports tricky or frightening places.

“You never meet two people who have ASD in the same way,” explains Samantha Judge, CEO of Autism Ireland (autismireland.ie), and mum to Evan (10), who has ASD.

“But it’s difficult to control in an airport. The busyness and brightness, the people all around, the announcements, things flashing up on screens… it can be total sensory overload before you even get to the point where you have to stand in a queue.”

Samantha says Irish airports have improved in helping passengers like Evan.

Shannon Airport (061 712 000; [email protected]) was the first in Europe to open a “sensory room” providing a soothing space, for example (see video above). Dublin has plans to open a similar facility early next year.

Both airports allow passengers worried about travel to book tours in advance, and frontline staff receive disability awareness training.

Dublin staff understand how to speak with Evan, Samantha says, and high-fived him after his latest fast-track experience. Cork Airport also offers wristbands for travellers with hidden disabilities.

For parents of children with ASD, Samantha also recommends creating “social stories” in advance – picture cards that map out steps in the journey (Aer Lingus carries visual guides on its website) as well as back-ups like nibbles and Netflix for inevitable travel delays.

I’m thankful to these two mums for helping me to understand an issue hidden in more ways than one.

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