Last Sunday, ten children with autism and their parents were invited to Belfast City Airport for a test-run through security and getting on a plane.
The event was organised by Parents' Education as Autism Therapists (PEAT), a Northern Ireland-based association, the Centre for Behaviour Analysis at Queen's University in Belfast, and George Best City Airport.
"A lot of parents say airport travel is very difficult for them to even think about," PEAT Behaviour Analyst Nichola Booth said. "Together with the Centre for Behaviour Analysis at Queen's University in Belfast we made videos that show from arriving at an airport to what happens on the plane. We needed a practical aspect as well, and thankfully George Best City Airport gave us permission for the kids to experience it all."
Large, crowded airports can be challenging environments for people with autism, cognitive impairment, disabled children and the elderly.
Nicola said many of the families avoid flying because of fears about their children might react. "We also have parents who take separate holidays, where one parent stays at home with the child and the other parent takes a break and then they swap,” she said. "That's not what we want - we want our kids and their families to go and do what other families are able to."
The test-run went well. Jenny, who is planning her family's first holiday this summer, said her five-year-old daughter, Lucy, enjoyed the day. "Recently Lucy's been quite nervous about mechanical noises, like trains and even lawnmowers, so we thought this would be a good opportunity," Jenny said. "We have a trip booked to Disneyland Paris, which isn't a long flight, but if she doesn't want to go we'll have to go home and that's that, but so far, so good."
Belfast City Airport event is the latest of a growing number of initiatives airports across the world are taking to make travelling with autism easier.
Last December, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Americans with Disability Act coordinator Lawrence Rolon said families with autism should not give up flying.
Many families with autism have expressed their hesitation at flying because of the public misconception of a sudden outburst by a person with autism.
“If the person with autism becomes unruly while waiting for a flight, ask airline personnel if there is a quiet area where you can go until the family member calms down. They will try to accommodate your request,” Lawrence Rolon said.
Dublin Airport set the European benchmark for passengers with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Working with Irish Autism Action, the Irish airport created a dedicated page on its website to help parents and carers prepare their journey ahead of getting to the airport.
Visual guides of both Terminals are available to download. The guides are useful to support individuals with autism understand situations like check-in gates or security check points and give a short description of the situation and information about what to expect and why.