Updated: Dec 24, 2020
TSA Cares is a little known program that helps those with special needs. TSA Cares is a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions, and other special circumstances additional assistance during the security screening process. In this episode, I talk about my experience as a mom of a child with autism going through airport security using this program. Although it’s not guaranteed it is a fantastic program when it works and you’ll be excited to learn that you only need to contact TSA 72 hours before you travel.
TSA Cares is for travelers requiring special accommodations or concerned about the security screening process at the airport may ask a TSA officer or supervisor for a passenger support specialist who can provide on-the-spot assistance. Members of the Wounded Warrior Program may also participate in this program.
How this program works:
You'll call the TSA Cares hotline at least 72 hours before your flight
During this phone call, you'll relay your flight information for arrival
You'll relay your departure as well
Tell the agent what needs will need to be considered during security screening
Please know that this is not a skip screening this simply provides help to get through security with less stress. To ensure your security and safety, all travelers are required to undergo screening at the checkpoint. You or your traveling companion may consult the TSA officer about the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening process. You may provide the officer with the TSA notification card or other medical documentation to describe your condition. You can obtain the notification card from the TSA website.
You are required to undergo screening at the checkpoint by technology or a pat-down. If your TSA PreCheck™ designation has been verified at a participating airport, you do not need to remove shoes, laptops, 3-1-1 liquids, belts, or light jackets during the screening process. I highly recommend getting TSA PreCheck or Global Entry well in advance especially when traveling with a loved one with special needs. It makes the process go a lot faster and it has saved me a couple of times when I’ve been cutting it close to missing my flight. However, if you are required to undergo additional screening for any reason, a pat-down may be required, which includes the removal of items such as shoes, belts, or light jackets. Also, TSA officers may swab your hands, mobility aids, equipment, and other external medical devices to test for explosives using explosives trace detection technology.
When going through this process with a person with an intellectual disability or developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, they can be screened without being separated from their traveling companions if traveling with one. You or your traveling companion may consult the TSA officer about the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening process.
The TSA website has tons of information about how the process will go for many different types of disabilities. It’s a lot to go over in this episode but know if you have any kind of disability when flying this is a great resource to look into before you fly so that you are better prepared for security screening.
For a recent trip to Turkey in which I traveled alone with my two boys, I decided to get TSA Cares's help. I made the phone call to the hotline and then printed out the TSA Care Notification card. This card lets the TSA Agent know there is someone with a disability that needs careful consideration.
I have TSA PreCheck already, so the agents allowed my oldest son to wear his ear muffs through the metal detector but they asked him to remove them to inspect them once he left. He stayed with me the entire time during the screening process, which was quick and I only had to get my hands swabbed after I went through the metal detector with my youngest son in the baby carrier.
There was a dedicated TSA Agent that was helping us through the entire screening process. I don't think she had to do this and maybe because she saw I was alone with my boys she decided to help us get to the USO but before that she showed me exactly where my gate was before she went back to work. The kindness extended by her was immeasurable. She pushed my stroller for me and was an extra pair of eyes for my oldest son while at the airport, but thankfully my son does not elope so I wasn’t worried he’d runoff, but it was nice to have another pair of eyes. Maybe she was being extra nice because I don't believe that's standard but it was a really nice gesture to an already stressful situation of getting to the airport.
Wings for Autism / Wings for All is an initiative run by The Arc and is currently in 15 airports and growing. Which I’m so thankful for! There are now programs in place at many airports that provide children with autism a flying experience without ever lifting off the ground. Participants pack their bags, ride to the airport, pass through security, and continue through the whole flying process including boarding, “flying” and deplaning.
These “dress rehearsals” help to prepare individuals with autism for flying. When the time comes children with autism will know what to expect and the environment will not be as foreign to them. Hopefully, over time the experience of flying will become as clockwork as it currently is for most of us.
The dress rehearsals walk participants through the air travel experience starting with the check-in process, going through screening, waiting in the gate area, and boarding the aircraft with pilots and flight attendants. Taxing on the runway and returning to the gate. Then it takes participants through deplaning and to baggage claim. The experience lasts about 3 1/2 hours and moves from airport to airport.
A few airports at the time of this podcast have multi-sensory rooms for customers that provide a calming space for children, individuals with disabilities, and their families as they travel, such as low light rooms. More airports are also getting on board! This can be a perfect space to wait in until minutes before boarding! Some airports off the top of my head are Ireland's Shannon Airport, Hartfiel- Jackson in Atlanta, Myrtle Beach Airport, and Pittsburgh International Airport. For more information about The Arc and how to sign up for an event when they reopen post COVID-19 head on over to The Arc website. I think it’s a fantastic program for anyone that is seeking that extra preparation to make traveling with their family with special needs a little bit easier!
There is more and more coming to the travel and tourism industry that is helping to make strides for neurodivergent travelers and I'm so thrilled by the prospects!
Email TSA Cares - TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov
Do you want to listen to this instead? Check out the podcast episode here!