Airports can be busy places at the best of times, but travel plans don’t always go smoothly and even a small travel hiccup can make the whole process more intimidating for someone with autism.
“With autism, one of the things we know is routine, scheduling and knowing what’s coming is very important,” said Jenny Tyler with Autism Nova Scotia.
That’s why the organization teamed up with the Halifax Airport Authority to create Autism Aviators, a program to help make travel more accessible to those on the autism spectrum.
Every two years, the program hosts a mock travel day. Autism travellers and their families go through all the steps, from checking in to going through security and even boarding a plane.
“This is one way that we can give back to the community and make a group of people that might not be able to travel otherwise familiar with the airport and the processes,” said Kelly Martin, customer service manager for the airport authority.
The program first began at the Halifax airport but has since expanded to other airports in the Maritimes with the goal of expanding further in the future.
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For people like Jacob Thibault, it’s a great idea. He’s travelled once before but decided to attend Sunday’s event to help prepare for an upcoming trip to California.
Thibault says he learned a lot.
“The stuff like the security and stuff to get on the plane,” he said.
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Thibault runs his own YouTube channel, in part to promote autism awareness, and says that while his upcoming trip is a bit outside his comfort zone, he hopes he can help inspire others.
“You can do things that you set your mind to and you can do what you want to do,” he said.
Jenn Bernath’s son is also on the spectrum, and she says the Autism Aviators day is a great tool for anyone with autism who wants to learn more about travel.
“I think it sets up an expectation to get them to realize that things can change and it’s not always going to be ideal,” she said.
Her son Will took part in the program and called the day “epic.”
While the mock travel day is held only every two years, Martin says the Halifax Airport Authority is willing to arrange private tours anytime if someone with autism has an upcoming flight. The only thing missing will be a chance to board an actual plane.
But there is more to the program than touring the airport.
“We also have an education program for staff so we try to make sure staff who are front-line are familiar with the Autism Aviators logo,” Martin said.
“If somebody is anxious or apprehensive going through security, for example, (staff) are going to have more patience and understand there is a need there.”
Tyler says Autism Nova Scotia’s partnership with the airport and airlines makes a big difference for any travellers with autism.
“It starts with coming right through airport doors,” said Tyler.