For many autistic people the outside world is overwhelming. Lucky for me, my hypersensitivity means only that I experience life at maximum volume, with the brightness turned way up, and everything running on fast forward. Many neurotypical people will identify with elements of that statement, but when it all happens at once, always, it is exhausting.
I never understood before that this is not the everyday experience of neurotypical people. Now though, I’ve learned that the stimuli setting off my magnified perception probably affect them at some level too.
Queen’s University Belfast has developed an ‘Autism in the Air’ experience along with George Best Belfast City Airport, aimed at helping parents and caregivers introduce autistic children to the airport environment. It got me thinking about my own airport experience.
Hypersensitivity and the fact that I’m very literal are especially relevant. The challenge of the security queue, for example, is all about the brusque, semi-aggressive manner of the staff and their lack of clear instruction versus the standing in line. Telling me what’s required and when, in clear, precise language would transform the experience at just about every airport I’ve used.
The same is true at the gate and immigration.
Travelling for an overnight in the US, I was faced with British Airways staff pre-screening passengers at the gate before passports and boarding cards were scanned. The one-night stay was immediately suspicious, and the process of checking my intentions became more questioning than asking. “Have you bought a return ticket for tomorrow?” I replied no, explaining it had been bought for me. What other response to the repeated, “Yes, but did you buy a return ticket?” was there than, “No!”. Eventually the irate BA guy tried: “Do you have a return ticket?”. Yes, I did, but I had answered him honestly and literally throughout and he need only to have adjusted his language to extract the information he needed.
After 90 minutes in line at the old Orlando airport I approached an end-of-shift Borders & Customs Protection officer. “Reason for travel?”, he barked. In reply, my exhausted autistic brain could only come up with: “To get here.” That was obviously not what he wanted, so I just mumbled incoherently. His response, slowly shouting “REASON-FOR-TRAVEL?” only made it worse. Ultimately, he tried, “What will you be doing in Orlando?” and we were able to conclude our business.
Sound, rather than noise, is a big deal for me, especially when there’s a need to listen for announcements. I hear everything at the same volume — I’m unable to discern the words of someone speaking to me in a noisy environment unless I can see their lips. At the airport I hear passenger, retail, and equipment noise, and the PA system, all at the same volume, all the time.
A distinctive chime or tone before announcements would help me focus but, more importantly, I need clear, concise information, spoken over a quality system. It’s true of the concourse but especially at the gates, where I’ve never heard a complete announcement in almost 35 years of regular flying. Could the solution be as simple as staff taking time to listen to one another and practicing?
I wonder if addressing these important issues for me and, presumably, other autistic people, might take away niggles that also bother neurotypical passengers at some level, helping make the airport experience better for everyone.
Wouldn’t we all benefit from clear, concise communication and staff trained to appreciate that every passenger has different needs?
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- Op-Ed: Sensory overload and the case for quieter airports
- Airlines, airports seek to support the autistic passenger experience
- Gatwick Airport’s accessibility promise paying off
- Tying up loose ends: Neurodiversity and aviation safety
- Press Release: BA to launch visual guide to support people with autism
Featured image credited to British Airways, which has been working to support autistic passengers