Outraged by a lengthy, unnecssary TSA patdown of a child with special needs, one mom investigates ways she can make travel easier with her own disabled child.

By Jamie Pacton
March 30, 2017

Chances are you've already seen that viral video of a TSA employee searching a child with a disability for several minutes. It's cringe-worthy, invasive, and infuriating. As the mother of an autistic boy about the same age as the boy in the video, I can't help but imagine my own son in this same position. My son is non-speaking, high support, and he would not be able to tolerate this sort of invasive search. (Indeed, I don't think many of us would be ok with similar treatment at the hands of a TSA employee.)

And while I understand the need for airport security to be thorough, watching this video got me thinking about the viability of traveling with my son. We want to visit Disney this year—which either means a three-day road trip or a much shorter plane ride. But it's a tough time to travel with a disabled child. New security measures have security agents on edge; iPads have been banned for many travelers without any consideration of how autistic people rely on them for communication and comfort; and, I'm hearing an increasing number of stories about disabled people being handled badly by airport security or by the airline employees.

One mother I know even told me this about traveling with her son who has autism: "He was made to stand in an isolation booth to be scanned because he wouldn't/couldn't remove his shoes. He was 5. The shoes were Crocs....First and last time we took him on a plane."

This is scary stuff, and it really makes me question whether or not there are helpful travel accommodations in place for people with disabilities. To find out more, I turned to my community of friends with disabilities and those with disabled kids who travel a lot how they do it, and what makes traveling easier for them.

Here are some of their tips:

My friend who travels the world as a lifestyle with her 10 children, five of whom have special needs, said this: "Most airlines are outstanding with this. There will be the option of listing your child's special need when buying your ticket. You can click the 'Yes, I need assistance getting on the plane' button.

"We always, always, always request a helper. We are greeted at check-in. A staff member walks us through security, which means we get through much faster. We are given the option of boarding first or boarding last. In most cases, last boarding actually works better for us. That way our child(ren) do not have to sit too long waiting to fly."

The president of my local Autism Society noted that TSA Cares, a program run by the TSA that offers a passenger helpline and support specialists, will walk people with disabilities through our airport (Milwaukee's General Mitchell). Though she did note that many other airports are not as accommodating as ours. So, if you want to use this service, it's best to call in advance and see how TSA can help your family.

Other people I know suggested these tips:

  • Take your child to the airport a few days early for a practice run.
  • Be sure to indicate on your child's ticket that they have a disability.
  • If you don't travel often, ask for pre-boarding and see if you can board the plane first, to get your child settled and comfortable before everyone else gets on.
  • Be sure to call the airline beforehand to let them know any accommodations your child(ren) might need, and don't be afraid to ask for help.
  • If you can check-in online and print your tickets at home, do it, as this will save you from waiting in line at the airport.

I plan on using all these tips to make our upcoming travel smoother, and I hope that the outrage sparked by the video of this boy being needlessly searched will inspire the TSA and the entire airline industry to take a long look at ways they can be more accommodating to travelers with special needs.

Jamie Pacton writes middle grade and young adult fiction, drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com