In 2011, Monarch Center for Autism initiated a relationship at Akron-Canton Airport with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Continental Airlines (now United Airlines) to educate security and airline personnel about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The goal was to train airport personnel to understand the social and communication deficits frequently demonstrated by individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, so they could more effectively promote positive travel experiences for these individuals.
In June 2012, twelve Monarch School students visited Cleveland Hopkins Airport and engaged in a simulated United Airlines trip, which afforded airport personnel hands-on-training. Each Monarch student had an identification badge which s/he presented to a United agent at the ticket counter to obtain a boarding pass. Students then proceeded to the security checkpoint where they waited in line, removed shoes and jackets, presented boarding passes, walked through the metal detector, and collected their belongings. At the gate, students were told they had to wait for the ticket agent and plane to arrive. After standing in another line and submitting their boarding passes, students boarded an actual airplane with a pilot, two flight attendants and TSA officials. They sat in their assigned seats; observed a security protocol video; listened to additional loud speaker announcements regarding beverage and food service; took a tour of the plane; and were then asked to return to their seats because they were experiencing "simulated turbulence." Prior to exiting the plane, each student was given the opportunity to sit in the cockpit.
Not only was this experience thrilling for the students, but it helped familiarize them with air travel procedures. In addition, it afforded TSA and United Airlines personnel hands-on training to recognize and empathize with individuals on the Autism Spectrum, so they can promote positive travel experiences for them in the future. We plan to replicate this experience next school year so additional Monarch students and TSA/Airline staff can benefit from its valuable lessons.
Several weeks ago, Monarch staff returned to Akron-Canton Airport to train additional TSA officials about autism. This training included the implementation of visual supports at the security checkpoints to facilitate travel.