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Father’s fury as he says autistic son was poorly treated at Northern Ireland airport

Carter on his travels, pictured with grandmother Marie
Carter on his travels, pictured with grandmother Marie

By Lisa Smyth

The father of a schoolboy with severe autism has hit out at the way his son was allegedly treated by staff at Belfast International Airport.

Carter Coyle (11) was wearing a special lanyard provided by the airport to alert staff to the fact that he has autism as he checked in to fly to Paris last Thursday.

Despite this, his dad Gerry said staff began a physical search without warning him beforehand and then threatened to remove the youngster from the building when Mr Coyle complained.

Mr Coyle said: "I'm so disappointed at how my son was treated. I specifically chose to fly from the International Airport because they advertise themselves as autism-friendly but that was anything but our experience last week.

"I won't be flying from there again because they were anything but understanding of my son's needs."

Describing the experience at the airport, Mr Coyle said: "We went through check-in and they gave Carter a special lanyard to highlight to staff that he has autism.

"I'm disabled and had to go through a separate security process because I was in a wheelchair and by the time I got through, one of the security people had Carter taking off his shoes for him to go through the X-ray machine. I called over and said, 'excuse me, can you stop please?' and warned him to be careful. I told him Carter had autism and he has sensory issues and it could cause him to have a meltdown.

"The security man told me that Carter had to go through the machine and when he came out they started to do a body search, so I called for the security man to stop. I said that because of Carter's sensory issues he doesn't like to be touched.

"I told him that he shouldn't have started touching Carter without me giving permission and without me getting the chance to talk to him first.

"He brought his supervisor over and I told him I was unhappy about what was happening.

"He said that no-one could force Carter to be searched, that it was fine if Carter wasn't searched and that he would just escort him off the premises and he wouldn't be flying anywhere.

"Carter went through with the search but I could tell how uncomfortable he was, he hates being touched, especially by a complete stranger. It was a horrific experience for him."

Mr Coyle said Carter was diagnosed with autism at two years old and had struggled since his mum Carrie died aged 36 two and half years ago.

He said: "There was just nothing when he was a baby.

"He was non-verbal until he was five and we had to use sign language to communicate with him.

"We had to work very hard with him to get him to where he is today."

Even so the 11-year-old suffers serious meltdowns and can often lash out or run away.

He said he understands the need for security but felt the airport should have allowed him to prepare Carter for the search.

"That's why it's so important that people take their time with him," said Mr Coyle.

"I just don't understand why the staff at the airport wouldn't give me time to talk and explain to Carter what was happening."

According to the airport's website, the lanyard informs staff that the passenger has autism and "may need a little more time to process information and may require additional assistance to prepare for check-in and security screening".

It continues: "Staff are also aware that passengers wearing a lanyard may need to remain with family or friends throughout the process."

The Coyle family was making a return trip to Paris after they were previously caught up in a terror attack in the French capital in April 2017.

The youngster is fascinated by tall buildings and always wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower.

However, he missed out on the experience last year after the landmark was shut in the aftermath of the murder of a policeman who was gunned down in an attack claimed by Islamic State.

When he finally reached France, Carter was able to climb the Eiffel Tour.

However, he was so unsettled by his ordeal at the airport that he will not be carrying on for a visit to Disneyland Paris.

Mr Coyle said: "He's had a huge meltdown and is asking to go home.

"The thing with Carter and his autism, when something happens it isn't too bad at the time but day by day it builds and builds until finally he explodes.

"I just wish people understood that the things we take for granted and see as trivial, Carter really struggles with."

Belfast International Airport did not respond to requests for a comment.

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