18-year-old Cullen is very good at coping with his autism in the real world. All his life, he’s been taught how to self-regulate his emotions and take some time out when things are getting too stressful to avoid a meltdown. He’s a very happy young man, and his family has done all they can to prepare him for the challenges he’ll face in life.
But they weren’t expecting this one.
According to his father, Hub Chason, Cullen loves to travel and has flown on commercial airlines several times without any problems. He’s been through TSA before, so his parents weren’t overly nervous about how he would do this time around. But at the Tallahassee Regional Airport, as the vacation-bound family prepared to board a flight, Chason says, things weren’t handled the way they should have been.
“He knows what to do — he was pulling his shoes off already … I have this bright red shirt on Cullen that says, ‘I am autistic,'” remembers Chason.
But despite doing everything right, Cullen was pulled out of the TSA line for a pat-down. Chason says there was little reason for this pat-down, because he knew that Cullen had nothing on him that would have triggered the scanner—just his t-shirt, shorts, and a smile.
Cullen, although obviously disturbed by the intrusion on his personal space, handled the situation well. After the pat-down, he hurried away to a bench to sit down by himself and calm down. “He was doing what he’s been trained to do,” says Chason. “He was going to a quiet place and trying to gather himself.”
Things took a turn for the worse, however, when the young TSA agent asked Cullen to return for a second pat-down. The first time, the family had been offered a private room but said they didn’t need it. This time, knowing how anxious and disturbed his son already was, Chason asked that they be taken to the separate room, but the TSA agent denied the request.
Chason reports that Cullen insisted, “No pat-down,” but that his older brother was able to persuade him to cooperate. During this second pat-down, however, Cullen could no longer take all the unsolicited touching and began to have a meltdown. He swung his arm out to hit his brother and then the TSA agent in an attempt to get them away from him, which caused an onsite officer to intervene.
According to Chason, the officer was not calm and collected but rather shouted, “He can’t fly, he can’t fly,” further overstimulating Cullen’s already frayed nerves and worsening the meltdown. Chason tried to reason with the officer but was eventually forced to surrender and call off the family’s vacation.
“It was horrible,” Chason says. “We were all upset. You could just see it in his face, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to go.”
Since the incident, Chason has been working on creating a greater sense of accountability among people in positions of authority. Police officers, TSA agents, and others, he says, must be made aware of autism and how to handle situations involving an autistic person.
“It is no day at the beach to travel with an autistic person for his caretakers,” Chason says. “Much planning and effort are required. Autistic kids get frightened easily, they are made anxious by everyday noises, etc. These kids do not get to enjoy many things that normal kids do, so every outing for them is huge. We all want to be safe and comply with the rules. However, with the significant percentage of autism and special needs individuals in the population, the lack of preparedness, empathy, understanding and procedures to handle this was quite surprising and very disappointing. Especially to Cullen.”
Chason hopes that the videotape of this incident will help prove his point and motivate legislators to make changes that will prevent this sort of thing from happening to anyone else.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?