Increasing autism awareness at airports

Malta International Airport has recently been awarded an ‘Autism Friendly Spaces’ accreditation from Prisms. Frankie Youd discusses the importance of autism awareness with Margaret White, youth worker at the non-profit youth organisation.

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Satisfying the criteria set out by youth organisation Prisms and other managing bodies, Malta International Airport (MIA) has been awarded the ‘Autism Friendly Spaces’ accreditation – making it one of the first businesses to receive the award in Malta. 

For someone with autism, travelling through an airport environment can be an extremely daunting and challenging experience. From busy lines of people to loud announcements and uncertainty caused by flight delays, airports can act as a sensory overload to those on the spectrum. 

In a survey carried out by price comparison website Airport Parking Shop, over 80% of parents with children who have autism responded that an airport experience is a particularly troubling one, with their children finding airports difficult. 

To make this a smoother, more enjoyable experience for passengers on the spectrum, airports such as MIA have designed airport spaces specifically for those on the spectrum. This has led to the airport recently receiving an award for its facilities.  

The award – which was created within a wider programme managed by Prisms and Autism Europe, amongst other organisations – aims to recognise and support organisations and spaces that are working together to transform everyday experiences into more accessible ones for individuals who are on the spectrum. 

To be recognised for the award, the airport followed many criteria set out by the organisation – such as the designation of employees undertaking training to become ‘autism ambassadors.’ The airport also has facilities that enable passengers to access quiet spaces and have a staff member accompany them through their journey and receive fast-track assistance when needed. 

These measures are part of the airport’s Journey Facilitation Programme, which was launched in 2018 and aims to assist individuals on the spectrum with their airport journey. Since its launch, the airport has delivered more than 500 services to passengers on the spectrum, who are given a distinctive wristband to make staff aware of their presence. 

Margaret White, youth worker at non-profit Prisms. Credit: Prisms

Frankie Youd: Can you provide me with some background on the organisation?

Margaret White: Prisms is an NGO set up in 2008 in Malta. It includes a team of youth workers and psychologists who work within the areas of inclusion: disability, migrants, and mental health. 

Prisms works within the local and European contexts through training courses, educational programmes, and projects that address the needs of young people. With regards to the inclusion of people with disabilities, Prisms is at the forefront. 

Prisms provides training in the field of disability and has provided training to over 180 employers on how to best support people with disabilities in the workplace. Prisms has provided training to over 50 parents with disabilities and 90 bus drivers who work with people with disabilities. 

Through the project Autism Friendly Spaces, which Prisms is currently implementing, we have met with different people from the sector. Prisms has provided offline training about autism to around 200 people – both service providers, staff members of establishments, and organisations such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). 

Since June 2021, Prisms has had its own group of 20 young people with intellectual disabilities and through mentoring sessions and leisure activities, we are supporting them and their families weekly.

What measures were put in place that led to MIA receiving the award?

Through the Autism Friendly Spaces project, Prisms, together with CRPD and Autism Europe, has created a quality label with criteria for several types of establishments. Through these criteria, establishments can gain the Autism Friendly Spaces accreditation. 

Steps that have been in place include meetings with staff from MIA, site visits with the Autism Parents’ Association to implement changes required to make the place more sensory friendly, staff training, and being part of an awareness campaign. 

Prisms, together with the consortium of the project, has created four online modules available both online and on a mobile app. 

Staff from MIA have carried out the modules that provided them with awareness, knowledge about persons with autism, and information on how to make the place more sensory accessible. Those who finish the modules successfully receive a certificate and a badge, marking them as ‘autism ambassadors’. 

Why are areas such as this important for an airport environment?

An airport is one of the places that has the highest form of sensory input: lots of sounds, chaos, queues, music, and waiting time. Therefore, having a Journey Facilitation in place has proven to be beneficial for people with autism, with sensory issues, and for their families. 

Airports should be taking this into consideration. According to the latest research, around one in every 59 people in Europe is autistic. This means that while travelling, this will be a challenge not just for them, but for their families. 

The Journey Facilitation at MIA can be seen as good practice, and we congratulate them for their sterling job in being as accessible as possible. 

Prisms is working to train other organisations about autism and will soon embark on another project to support young people with autism into employment. 

We are also embarking on creating a new system that will support persons with disability to be as independent as possible through an online quiz with a goal-setting support system and guidelines.