TSA and Autism: Navigation tips you need

How do you get a young person with autism through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) maze? We’ve got tips.

Mom and MJ, travel partners. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Our family is one of thousands in the United States managing life on the autism spectrum. In our case, it is Big AK Kid, who, at 24, may not be considered a kid by societal standards, but indeed he is. Intellectually brilliant, socially awkward, personally introspective in the truest sense of the word (sometimes to our great annoyance), we all bump through life as a little quartet, sometimes bouncing off one another, sometimes colliding. But always together. 

Travel with this six-foot-six-inch guy (MJ for privacy’s sake) is never simple. Oh, the logistics themselves are pretty quiet; it’s the pre-game that’s complicated. Choose a destination with enough stimulation to interest him (and us), but not so much that it’ll cause more than the usual withdrawal; make reservations but check all the boxes to make sure things go smoothly; leave for the airport, train station, or boat harbor at exactly the right moment so as to hit the “sweet spot” of behavioral bliss. 

MJ and I flew to Seattle a few weeks ago so he could visit family. I accompanied him down but his father was to send him back via a gate escort. It all went pretty well, but only because we all circled up, including TSA (the most complicated part of all).

The little blue card that made our lives easier. TSA publishes a notification card to present to screeners before flying, cruising, or train travel. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

We made a plan: It had been years since MJ had flown, and his memories weren’t all positive. So I called up the TSA helpline and the person on the line was indeed very supportive. He suggested I visit TSA Cares for updates to procedures, and it was indeed very good to see what had changed for the better regarding people with intellectual or behavioral difficulties. 

I told the airline: As much as MJ likes to leave out anything related to his disabilities for fear of being judged, we talked ahead of time and I let him know travel is the time to be as open as possible. We flew JetBlue to Seattle, and I was impressed at all points with the company’s openness and calm presence. MJ needed his long board to go along, so the crew were great about an easy gate-check procedure and assured him it would be waiting at the jetway when we arrived in Seattle. They also let us pre-board, which gave me time to make sure MJ had his headphones on (to block out noise) and backpack stowed properly. 

We informed TSA at every step of the security process: Most TSA agents are kind and considerate, but I’ve encountered a few who made me want to grit my teeth and bite my tongue. Fortunately, everyone at Anchorage International Airport was helpful, and we were quite open about asking questions and making statements as to MJ’s abilities or challenges, depending upon the situation. We also printed out a TSA Notification Card that I laminated and had MJ carry on his person to hand to every officer we encountered. While not a “get out of screening free” pass, it does alert agents that an individual may have difficulties with certain aspects of the process, and for a young man who does NOT like to be touched, it was a critical tool. 

I kept cool. As a parent who has witnessed her child’s lifetime of struggle, it is hard not to pre-judge authority figures, especially while traveling. I made sure we arrived a bit earlier than usual, smiled a lot, and thanked everyone. Multiple times. And it worked (OK, the glass of wine before I left home probably did too, but we all cope our own way). 

Would I do it again? Yes! More important, MJ would too, and both of us remarked that we felt like we’d just completed a marathon; exhausted, but exhilarated. I am proud of us. And I’m proud of TSA, too. It took a village and we did it. 

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