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How airlines are making travel easier for autistic passengers

Travelling can be complicated for neurodivergent travellers. That’s why airlines are working to make air travel more comfortable.

By Lauren Rowello
Published 7 Dec 2021, 10:45 GMT, Updated 8 Dec 2021, 09:47 GMT
Airport Silhouette
A family looks out to the airport’s runway. Airlines are working to make air travel more accessible to neurodivergent travelers.
Photograph by Maria Dubova, Alamy Stock Photo

Air travel can be stressful for anyone, but for neurodivergent travellers, there is an added layer of anxiety that comes with taking flight. 

In the U.S., for instance, Dora Raymaker, an autistic researcher who is the co-director of AASPIRE, a community-partnered research initiative centering on autistic adults, says neurodivergent people are often flagged by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents for suspicious behaviour. It happens when others misinterpret behaviours such as differences in motor function or slow movement, lack of eye contact and nonverbal tendencies.

She describes neurodivergence as an invisible disability because it’s not always apparent to strangers that extra assistance is needed, especially while travelling. Raymaker says that challenges at the airport are just one example of the systemic issues neurodivergent travellers face, often rendering trips difficult or impossible for some autistic adults.

Navigating airports can present overwhelming and time-consuming challenges for neurodivergent travelers.
Photograph by Mira, Alamy Stock Photo

Raymaker speaks from experience. “[TSA] couldn’t process why I’d need accommodations if I wasn’t in a wheelchair, so finally, it was just easier to let them put me in [one] so I could get the services I needed,” she says.

There has been an increase of information and resources for neurodivergent families, but Raymaker says there are few, if any, for solo travelling adults. With high rates of undiagnosed people within the autistic community and very little research about the travel patterns, needs, or barriers facing neurodivergent adults, not much has been done to promote systemic change for these travellers.

(For autistic youths entering adulthood, a new world of challenges awaits.)

Over the last few years, several travel companies have implemented programs to increase accessibility for neurodivergent travellers, and many took time during the pandemic to boost competency with additional training. Many autistic travellers hope that these improvements will lead to safer and more comfortable trips as customers return to travel this holiday season.

Changes happening on the ground

Some airports have been investing in lounges for neurodivergent travellers. Samantha Stedford, director of customer experience at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), says that initial ideas for the airport’s sensory-friendly suite included immersive activities and technology in a bright, child-centred room. After asking the autistic community for feedback, the company realised they got it all wrong.

Autistic adults, caregivers and people with sensory sensitivities—including other hidden disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder—wanted the space redesigned as a soothing escape from the otherwise chaotic environment. “What we heard was less is more,” Stedford explains.

The new suite opened in 2019 with dimmable lights, bubble towers, gentle rockers, satisfying textures on the walls and hideaway nooks. The bathroom features upgrades for accessibility such as an adult-size changing station and adjustable height sink; soundproof rooms are now available for privacy.

“Everyone wanted something different,” Stedford says, so the airport sought to make each element customisable. There are at least six airports internationally that have such spaces—in Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Lehigh Valley, Penn.; Gatwick in the U.K., and Shannon in Ireland—and all vary in size and features. 

During the pandemic, similar suites opened in Seattle-Takoma and other airports across the U.S. PIT includes a simulated airplane cabin to help acquaint travellers with the space before takeoff and a space between the concourse and sensory room that has real-time flight information and an interactive terminal map for a smoother transition to the plane. Stedford says that anyone nervous about flying can schedule a practice run that will take passengers through security and on a tour. Similar opportunities to prepare pre-flight exist at airports in Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, and other cities—but they often focus solely on assisting neurodivergent families with children.

Mikah Villagomez, 3, presses the call button above his seat during a simulated flight at Salt Lake International Airport. The Taking Flight for Autism program encourages autistic children and their families to acquaint themselves with the routines and sounds of air travel with a mock flight.
Photograph by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News, Ap

Stedford adds that PIT’s security officers were recently trained to discern neurodivergent behaviours from security risks. “I’ve been working with a local university to develop training modules to train our entire team on how to recognise and approach someone with different needs,” she says.

Such needs can include stimming—or repetitive, self-stimulating behaviour—such as hand flapping, tapping or rocking, clearing the throat and various other movements or vocalisations. Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez, an autistic occupational therapist, says that all staff should be trained to identify this behaviour as a sign of sensory overload.

“Sensory overload happens when the brain is processing too much sensory information at one time,” says Selvaggi Hernandez, which can lead to cardiac incidents, stroke, self-injurious behaviour, and other physical and mental health concerns if prolonged. She notes that stimming should be treated as a method of communication and attempts should not be made to stop it. Effectively training airport security personnel to understand how this behavior might point to a person’s needs is an important step toward de-escalating potentially traumatic events. Active listening and clear communication when requesting compliance can greatly reduce distress some neurodivergent travellers might feel.

Travel tips to consider

Neurodiversity training with travel staff promotes better care and understanding, but efforts should not end there. Selvaggi Henandez says creating new policies would help remove unnecessary barriers. “Sensory needs are real, neurological needs,” she says. “I see an opportunity for vast improvement in moving [toward] a support model.”

From ticketing challenges and confusing mobile airline apps to baggage check-in and security checks, navigating airports can present overwhelming and time-consuming challenges for neurodivergent travellers. Unexpected events, such as flight delays and overbooking, create additional disruptions. When other passengers become tense during these frustrating situations, it can add another layer of dysregulation for neurodivergent people who are often highly sensitive to other people’s emotions.

Before taking a trip, contact customer service teams at your chosen airline and destination with questions or requests that might improve your experience. Consider reviewing and printing relevant photos and instructions, roleplaying interactions, and developing or practicing social scripts to familiarise yourself with typical transit encounters.

People who have processing differences or get overwhelmed by the noise and action of transportation hubs can bring notecards to communicate their support needs. Another option is to print frequently used questions and responses if verbal interactions are difficult.

Although airport stressors can be overstimulating, exciting events or positive surprises can cause dysregulation too—and travellers should plan for how their bodies will respond to these experiences, says Selvaggi Hernandez. She recommends packing a scarf that can support a variety of needs: to create privacy, block smells or light, support temperature control, and provide gentle pressure when needed.

Selvaggi Henandez adds companies attempting to accommodate neurodivergent people should remember that even though autistic people share a general diagnosis, each person’s individual needs will vary. A recent National Geographic article on how national parks can be more autism-friendly generated lots of reader feedback, including from Lisa Kaufman, who writes, “I envision an access concierge,” she says. “They might be a jack of all trades, understanding a variety of situations that might benefit from a personalised approach.”

Stedford says that Pittsburgh’s airport relies on the input of an accessibility advisory group and consults universal design experts who encourage the company to surpass the standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Making things better for people who have additional needs makes things better for everyone,” she says.

Lauren Rowello is a queer, autistic writer from Philadelphia whose work tends to explore themes of identity, mental health, and justice. Connect with them on Twitter.

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