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February 9, 2022updated 30 Jun 2022 5:12pm

Increasing autism awareness at airports

Malta International Airport has recently been awarded an ‘Autism Friendly Spaces’ accreditation from the non-profit youth organisation, Prisms.

By Frankie Youd

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

Travelling through an airport environment for an individual with autism can be an extremely daunting, challenging experience. From busy lines of people, 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 Airport Parking shop, over 80% of parents with children who have autism responded that an airport experience is a particularly daunting one, with their children finding airports very problematic.

To make this a smoother, more enjoyable experience for passengers on the spectrum airports such as Malta International Airport (MIA) have designed airport spaces especially for those on the spectrum. This has seen the airport recently receiving an award for its facilities. 

The award – which was created within a wider programme managed by Prisms, Autism Europe, and others – 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 has followed many criteria set out by the organisation such as the designation of employees undertaking training to become ‘autism ambassadors.’ The airport has also included facilities that enable passengers to access quiet spaces which provide a relaxing environment, have a staff member accompany them through their journey and receive fast track assistance when needed.

This extra assistance and areas are part of the airport’s Journey Facilitation Programme that 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.

Frankie Youd talks to Margaret White, Youth Worker at Prisms, to discuss the background of the organisation as well as why areas such as this are important at airports.

Margaret White. 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 which address the needs of young people. With regards to the inclusion of people with disabilities, Prisms is at the forefront.

In 2021, Prisms was chosen as an inclusion pioneer in Malta and as a good service in the sector by European Union Programmes Agency (EUPA). Therefore, Prisms was part of the round table group to implement the Roadmap to Diversity and Inclusion Strategy in Brussels in November 2021 together with resource centre Support, Advanced Learning and Training Opportunities for Youth (SALTO).

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

Through the project Autism Friendly Spaces, which Prisms is implementing at the moment, a
KA2 EU funded project, 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 to 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 steps have been put in place at Malta International Airport to receive the award?

Through the Autism Friendly Spaces project, Prisms together with CRPD and Autism Europe, have created a Quality Label with criteria for different types of establishments. Through these criteria, the establishments can acquire the Autism Friendly Spaces accreditation.

Steps that have been in place include meetings with staff from Malta Airport (MIA), site visits together 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.

What is involved for a staff member to become an autism ambassador?

Prisms together with the consortium of the project have created four online modules available both on the website www.autismfriendlyspaces.eu and on the mobile app, available on both Android and IOS.

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 received a certificate and a badge, to be marked as ‘autism ambassadors’.

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

An airport is one of the places which 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 very beneficial for persons with autism, persons with sensory issues and their families.

Do you feel that more airports should be taking this into consideration?

Yes. Following the latest research, around one in every 59 persons in Europe are autistic. This means that while travelling, this will be a challenge not just from them, but for their families.

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

Is the organisation currently involved with any other similar projects?

Yes, Prisms is working to train other organisations about Autism and will soon embark on another project to support young persons 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.

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