Airports and autism: a match made in hell

Hello, and happy new year from #UnfrenchLeah. I hope your new year has started well?

I was truly spoilt at Christmas by my dad, step mum and partner's mum. Needless to say, trying to pack all of those presents into a suitcase proved a challenge. We (Aaron and I) came back with a hold case, carry on case, and bag each. Aaron's mum managed to pack everything in, without a single broken port glass, tea pot or dog mug (yes, seriously).

If the packing wasn't stressful enough, what we experienced at the airport was even worse. Given we fly back and forth between the UK and France fairly often, we normally have security down to a tee. Hand luggage only, fast-track security and liquids/iPads etc easily removable for separate screening.

Now anyone that has been through Manchester Airport security will know that no matter how prepared you are, you can still be stuck there for an hour. To combat this, they've created Premium Security, which is one level up from the fast track security we already have. There is one fast track lane, and one premium lane. Are you keeping up so far? If the premium lane is empty, you're still not allowed to use it. So despite there being three members of staff standing there with nothing to do, the lane stays empty. But that's irrelevant here.

So once we finally got our cases and coats onto the belt in the fast track lane, we waited for the inevitable rejection of our bags. It happens almost every time, leading to waits of around 30 minutes. This time it was more like an hour. My partner's rucksack and carry on case were both rejected, so you can imagine how frustrated he was getting, along with everyone else who was waiting.

What I haven't mentioned so far is that my partner is autistic. He has Asperger's Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, which makes places like airports very stressful, especially when things don't go to plan and something is out of his control.

When the security guard finally got to Aaron's bag, Aaron asked to speak to a supervisor about his disability. A very anxious Aaron said he'd like a reasonable adjustment to be made under the Equality Act 2010 because he has Asperger's Syndrome. Her response was "If we made adjustments for you, we'd have to make them for everyone". I was shocked. I didn't really know what to say. I'd read so much about how airports were training their staff to recognise and deal with disabilities, particularly Asperger's. They even have a scheme in place to help. Aaron rarely needs help, but when he does it's never been refused before. Asking for it is difficult, and denying it is illegal.

While I realise not everyone understands autism very well, but a grown adult is standing there, asking for help and the supervisor is saying no. More than that, she supervisor just kept repeating the rules about removing electricals and liquids from baggage. Indicators of autism include attention to detail, and a truly brilliant memory. With that in mind, you can imagine Aaron did not need the rules repeated to him, he needed to be taken to a quiet place, and his baggage rechecked quickly.

As tensions began to rise, the supervisor finally seemed to realise that refusing help wasn't the way forward, and she let the security guard continue with his job, without making any reasonable adjustments. I had tried all my tricks to try and manage the situation. I called Aaron by his name, I stroked his back, I tried to explain to the supervisor. But nothing worked for either of them. Anyone who understands autism will know that sometimes, getting someone out of the situation is the only thing that will work after a certain threshold has been crossed. Aaron quickly repacked his bags and we left.

I'm sure someone will say that Aaron should be wearing a sunflower lanyard, but I completely understand why he doesn't want to. Why does everyone at the airport need to know that need needs help? As someone who flies in and out of Manchester Airport without incident at least once a month, why should he have special treatment all the time? And with these lanyards often associated with children, why should an adult be treated like a child? But without a lanyard, will security at the airport recognise that he has a disability? Legally, he doesn't need any proof (not that a near-melt down isn't proof enough), and he doesn't need to declare it at a certain point. It can just make things easier for other people.

After this incident, we spoke to the assistance team at the airport. They are well versed in the law, very understanding, and entirely unrelated to the security team. The way they handled us was impressive. We were both clearly very pissed off, but they gave us a number to call, the aforementioned lanyard, and showed some empathy. Often, all that's needed to diffuse a situation is understanding, and that is where the supervisor failed miserably.

I feel really let down by the security supervisor at Manchester Airport. The situation didn't need to be that stressful but a poorly trained staff member made it very difficult. Given Manchester Airport itself promotes itself as an autism-friendly airport, I'd like to see it in practice. We're not talking about a new member of staff her, but a supervisor who should be setting an example for others instead of making the situation worse.

What makes me feel worse is that as Aaron's partner, I think I should be able to protect him from things that make his life difficult and I should be able to get through to him when he's anxious. I failed on both counts here. We cover disabilities and mental health a lot here at #UnfrenchWives, and it's clear that living with a disability, and caring for someone with a disability can be equally challenging at times. Feel free to ask Aaron if he agrees on the days he has to convince me to get out of bed and beg me to eat!

Well if Aaron won't wear it, I'll have to...

Leah x

Ps. For anyone who wants to know why the bags were rejected, it was a forgotten sewing machine (mine, not Aaron's and packed by his mum so we forgot it was there - it's not something they see everyday) and a box of powdered hot chocolate. I guess they left hot drinks off their list of things to take out of your bags: liquids, electricals, empty water bottles, hot chocolate.

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