Tessa Watkins with their 4-year-old daughter at home in Mount...

Tessa Watkins with their 4-year-old daughter at home in Mount Lebanon, Pa.  Credit: For The Washington Post/Michael Swensen

If you saw Tessa Watkins walking through the airport, you might notice the way their auburn ponytail reveals a shaved side cut, or that their 4-year-old daughter sometimes rides on a small suitcase that looks like a cartoonish dinosaur. What you're less likely to notice is that both parent and daughter have hidden disabilities that can make traveling challenging.

That's why Watkins, who is autistic and also lives with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, has started wearing a distinctive neck lanyard from the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program when they travel.

"I love the concept of the lanyard saying I am disabled," said Watkins, a 32-year-old web developer. The yellow sunflowers on a green background are intended to be a signal covering all invisible disabilities, with a goal of alerting airport and airline workers that the person wearing it might need some extra time or assistance.

Launched in 2016 at Britain's Gatwick Airport, the initiative has grown to include nearly 200 airports worldwide, including 77 in the United States.

The success of the program for travelers with disabilities is difficult to gauge. When Watkins recounted their recent travel experiences, there are moments when staff clearly seemed to recognize the lanyard and scenarios in which it appeared they lacked awareness or proper training.

About 840 million people worldwide have some form of hidden disability, said Linda Ristagno, assistant director of external affairs for the International Air Transport Association.

IATA wants to see airports be more accessible and have better communication with passengers. It also champions spaces in airports to better suit the needs of all travelers. That includes quiet areas and multisensory stimulation environments, which contain equipment that can create light, sound and touch experiences that can help those with autism, dementia, brain injury and developmental disabilities.

For instance, the Pittsburgh International Airport, which will soon be joining the sunflower program, has a sensory room with tunnels, rocking chairs and visually stimulating lamps and wall displays, in addition to a traditional playground.

Watkins wears a Hidden Disabilities sunflower lanyard when they travel. 

Watkins wears a Hidden Disabilities sunflower lanyard when they travel.  Credit: For The Washington Post/Michael Swensen

Airports that participate commit to educating employees in the etiquette and skills to approach a person wearing one of the lanyards, although real-life experiences suggest training is scattered.

Last December, the Watkins family was at the Pittsburgh airport for a flight to London. Watkins was wearing their lanyard, and their husband, John, was wearing one that reads, "I support the Sunflower." An employee approached and asked if they needed assistance, then volunteered the location of the playground and the sensory room.

The day the family returned from their trip, however, the lanyards did not help them prevent a scene at Heathrow airport.

The parents had worked to keep their daughter sensory-stimulated while waiting for British Airways to open check-in. But walking, spinning and riding the suitcase eventually lost her interest, so they felt they needed to get to the airport's only soft-play area, which was through security.

While the girl waited with her father, Watkins approached the ticket counter, then stood off to the side because initiating conversation is difficult for them.

Despite wearing the lanyard, Watkins said they had a torturous wait to be acknowledged. Once they finally got an agent's attention, Watkins explained they wanted to get through to the play area because their daughter with autism was struggling, but the agent further delayed check-in by asking where the girl was.

Moments after Watkins pointed out their daughter, the airport environment triggered a reaction in the girl, who screamed and bolted.

"I felt like this was traumatizing for me, my child and everyone around us, having to witness this," they said.

When two British Airways employees approached to help, one crouched down and told the child, 'Stop making mommy cry." Then he addressed Watkins, who is nonbinary, and said: "Stop crying. You can be a big girl."

The girl's outburst finally ended when the agent offered chocolate. Watkins remained emotionally dysregulated, even after a female employee offered a hug, they said. The act of deep pressure can help calm the nervous system of some with autism, though Watkins didn't know if the woman was trained or just kind.

With Watkins still crying and unable to process complex sentences, the family was escorted to security and screened quickly.

Fortunately, at the gate, an agent made eye contact with Watkins, "There was this nod and she started walking towards me, which meant like yes, come to me," Watkins recalled.

Whether the woman saw the lanyard or the girl, the message Watkins received was clear: "I felt like I was safe" and the agents were "taking care of me." The flight was without incident.

Watkins was grateful for the staff that offered support, but believes the ordeal didn't have to happen. "It was preventable because John and I could see the signs," Watkins said.

A December visit to Denver International Airport illustrated how much the sunflower program is dependent on training, which was voluntary. The airport spent about $4,000 to launch the program last May, emailing the training video to staff who had contact with the public and to TSA agents, but not tracking how many actually watched it.

"With over 30,000 employees at DEN including airline staff, wheelchair personal and retail and dining staff, widespread education can be difficult, especially with high turnover in many of these areas," said airport spokeswoman Stephanie Figueroa. "DEN is working on expanding the training and we will continue to work on how we can get more information to our airline partners."

Having experienced the inconsistency, Watkins believes it is the greatest weakness of the program. But, they still said the lanyard program is a win.

"Once you know that someone has an invisible disability … you can start having those conversations and learning how to best assist that individual," they said.

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