Year after year, autistic people can face barriers that prevent them from doing everyday things that most of us take for granted. Something as usual as going on a family vacation introduces a plethora of sensory disturbances that can cause autistic people stress.
Take an airport as an example, think about all the noise that is present in the terminal, the loudness of the jet engine of a plane, you can see how this could prevent an autistic person from travelling.
How can we move forward as a society and become more inclusive so that everyone from all aspects of society can experience travel?
Meet Flavia and Felicia
In an initiative organized by Autism Double Checked in partnership with LATAM and Virgin Hotels, Flavia, mother to Felicia embarked on an adventure to New York City. Felicia is 14 years old and autistic. Flavia has travelled extensively with Felicia as she often visits family in Brazil. This experience was previously extremely stressful for Felicia. Airport staff would very rarely know what to do, or how to help and support her while other passengers would make disparaging, unhelpful, judgmental remarks.
Autism Double Checked
It is the contemptuous glances, misunderstanding and discrimination that reoccur for families all over the world that Autism Double Checked seeks to address. Autism Double Checked is a foundation that trains tourism companies so that colleagues are aware of how autism presents and they know how to assist a customer if needed.
They invited Flavia not only to fulfil Felicia's dream of visiting New York but to demonstrate that it is possible for people with hidden disabilities to travel comfortably, receive appropriate assistance throughout the tourism chain, and thereby encourage other individuals with hidden disabilities to travel as well.
During their trip, Flavia and Felicia stayed at the Virgin Hotel New York, which has just been certified by Autism Double Checked, creating a safe place for their stay.
How can the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower help when travelling?
Flavia and Felicia arrived at the airport and during the check-in process, Flavia informed the member of staff that Felicia has a hidden disability. Felicia was offered the choice of wearing the Sunflower lanyard, a discreet symbol indicating that Felicia has a hidden disability to airport staff and other passengers. When seeing the lanyard, airport staff are trained to ask how they can support the wearers and their families as they pass through the terminal. The lanyard comes with a Sunflower card where you can enter your name and an emergency contact number.
LATAM was the first airline in South America to support the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower. So on Felicia's journey to New York, she found that she's supported throughout her entire journey, as the cabin crew have received the same training, provided by Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, as the ground crew.
Juan Jose Toha of LATAM said:
“The Sunflower lets everyone know that the wearer has a hidden disability. Parents can voluntarily request it so that our staff know to make themselves available to the parents to enhance the family's experience. We are aware that it is something we are learning about, it's a journey of learning. So, with more exposure, we will improve our understanding of hidden disabilities.”
So how was Felicia and Flavia's 10-hour flight? We asked Flavia:
“Previously, we always had such a bad time when travelling, and this trip has been truly a dream in every way.”
Supported by the Sunflower, Flavia and Felicia explored various destinations, experiencing memorable moments in Central Park, Times Square, and the American Girl Store, Felicia was able to create a doll that has become her new companion in her daily routines.
"It was an emotional and entirely different experience from the dozens of trips we had taken before using the Sunflower Lanyard,"
Felicia and Flavia in New York
This journey is marked by significant encounters, warm hugs, and conversations that transcend language barriers. Part of this achievement is made possible thanks to the support of LATAM Chile and the Autism Double Checked Agency, both of which recognize the importance of supporting initiatives that promote inclusion and awareness.
"The importance of inclusion for all is well known, and our intention is to continue learning from passengers like Feli. That's why certain companies within the LATAM group have joined the @sunflowerlanyardscheme project and have been certified by @autismdoublechecked, with the goal of enabling everyone to pursue their dreams without borders." - LATAM
The lanyard is a symbol of unity and visibility for those facing invisible challenges. Since she started wearing it, Felicia began to be seen with empathy, which has encouraged her to explore new places and challenges.
"It was my dream to visit New York! You can travel too!" said Felicia.
For some, a doll may be just a toy that children play with and makes them happy. For Felicia and other autistic children, a doll is much more than this, it's an instrument for socialisation. As Flavia says:
“The doll has been a great communication tool. Representing Felicia in the world. The doll has helped Felicia with socialising. She has gone to the Dr, the dentist and it has really helped with her integration into school.”
During their trip to New York, Felica takes Mideli to the American Girls Store, an inclusive place where girls from all over the world with different characteristics can find a doll that looks like them. For Mideli, she has a hair salon appointment, so that she will look more like Felicia.
Felicia's journey comes to an end, an experience in which during the transfer and stay, she had the respect and attention that everyone deserves thanks to the awareness and inclusion work of Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, Autism Double-Checked and LATAM Chile. A step forward in creating a more inclusive society for people with hidden disabilities. With the Sunflower as their guide, this journey echoes the message that the path to inclusion is a collective effort, a trail that everyone can walk together, regardless of geographical distances.