On 19 Mar, I attended a caregivers' forum organised by Changi Airport Group wishing to find out how the new Terminal 5 can cater to families with special needs. Personally, I went with two main suggestions in mind:
1. Handicap toilets must not be inside the Gents or Ladies, so that mothers can help their grown special-needs sons with toileting.
2. Allow special-needs persons to clear customs not individually but with their caregiver. This is because even as adults, autistic persons may feel lost, not understanding what is required of them and not being able to answer questions posed by the customs officer. This is even more difficult for restless children who may dash off once released from their caregivers' hand.
But if it's not possible to clear customs with the caregiver, then I'd suggest:
3. Indicating the special needs on the passport or on the boarding pass. With autistic persons looking very much like their neurotypical peers (except when they exhibit repetitive motions), I'm concerned that lack of understanding may be interpreted as refusal to cooperate, getting autistic persons like Calder into trouble with the airport police. And this trouble would only escalate if the police suspect foul play and by stern or harshly issued instructions, make the autistic person anxious or edgy.
An indication of special needs is only as useful as the amount of knowledge people have of such needs. Hence I think it is important that
4. Airport staff be trained on symptoms and limitations of various special needs, especially the "invisible" needs like intellectual disability, so that they can respond appropriately in urgent situations like when an autistic child melts down. In the case of autism, staff would learn, through training, important tips like using a calm voice in communication, steering the family to a quiet place or allowing them to go first (in queues) to minimise the child's distress in waiting.
5. Ideally, there would be a priority queue for families with special needs. This would facilitate clearance of customs together with the caregiver (so the general public wouldn't question the exception) and also minimise unhappiness of the general public should the special-needs person cause delay of queue.
I never knew until this forum, that there is such a place called the special-needs lounge in Changi Airport. Apparently, when we book air tickets, we can indicate to the airline our need to use this quiet place. Then a staff may usher us there to wait for the plane. Ease of use however depends on the airline, so it'd be good if
6. Accessibility to this special-needs lounge can be controlled by the airport rather than by individual airlines - perhaps showing the DDR card for the family to gain entry. Also, that this lounge not be just a quiet place with soft seats; it can contain books and sensory toys to occupy children with special needs. There can even be a soundproof, dimly-lighted room in this lounge where autistic children can enter individually and sit on a bouncy ball to calm down when they have a meltdown.
7. If there are provisions for people with special needs, these need to be clearly stated on the website for easy access. Perhaps this special-needs page on the airport's website can also include a downloadable picture procedure video or slideshow to prepare special-needs persons on what to expect at the airport.