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Autism and UK airports – Improving assistance for passengers with autism

  • 04 Oct, 2021
  • Alice Fowler
  • 46 Comments

autism and airports

We asked parents of children with ASD to give us some insights into the particular issues that they face when taking a child through the airport, some of their tips to get through it, and what they think airports should be doing to help make this journey easier for them.

Over 80% of parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder responded that the airport experience is a particularly daunting one in a recent survey conducted by Airport Parking Shop. Children with autism are likely to find airports very problematic, which is unsurprising given that it is a scenario far removed from everyday life. Queuing, security, announcements, crowds and more can all combine to make it a pretty overwhelming experience for anyone with ASD, but in particular children.

In recent years, there have been a lot more autism friendly airports! Manchester Airport led the way for a while in the UK, with booklets available on each terminal, but these have since been removed. You can still request a lanyard for passengers with a hidden disability though.  Other airports such as Gatwick offer visual booklet, whilst Newcastle Airport have trained their staff on autism awareness and now offer an Autism Passport which allows holders to Fast Track through security and Heathrow now offer Sunflower Lanyards to those with a hidden disability.  

Airports are getting better and better at helping those with autism through the experience and since writing this blog, there have been a lot more autism friendly airports! In the table below, you can see what each airport has available to date. We will try to keep this updated. Continue reading to discover more about what our survey respondents said.

Autism Friendly Airports:

Click the plane emoji ✈️ in each row to be taken to the official airport information.

Airport Details of assistance available
Aberdeen Airport Booklets about the airport, familiarisation visits, videos and lanyards are available.
✈️
Belfast City Airport The airport offers 5 videos on the various aspects of the airport journey from the “child’s eye view”, plus a green Hidden Disabilities lanyard. They also offer familiarisation visits!
✈️
Belfast International Airport Booklets for both children and adults are available. They also have booklets on when is the good time to fly for those with Autism. On top of that, there are Autism Awareness lanyards available at the airport. The lanyard gives you access to the left-hand Priority Lanes at security. You will then be guided to a Special Assistance Lane from there. ✈️
Birmingham Airport It has been given the Autism Friendly Award. Lanyards are available for the journey and informative booklets for both children and adults with autism or parents of children with autism. They’ve helpful videos that can be accessed too.
✈️
Bristol Airport It has been given the Autism Friendly Award. Lanyards, hidden disabilities special assistance cards, booklets and videos on aspects of the airport are all available. ✈️
Cardiff Airport The airport has lanyards and also provides familiarisation visits. ✈️
Doncaster Sheffield Airport There are lanyards, guides and quiet rooms at Doncaster Sheffield. ✈️
Teesside Airport The airport has sunflower lanyards available for those with hidden disabilities. ✈️
East Midlands Airport You can book their “try before you fly” visits to familiarise yourself with the airport and there are lanyards to alert staff in the airport. They also have quiet rooms available if you wanted to escape the busy airport.
✈️
Edinburgh Airport It is been given the Autism Friendly Award. Lanyards and pins are available. To help you ease into the journey, the airport has a social story which you can download. They also have quite spaces if you want to get away from all the hustle bustle. ✈️
Gatwick Airport The airport has an Autism Friendly Award. You can download their visual guides and lanyards can be worn. In addition, North Terminal now has a sensory room for those travelling who might benefit from a calm and relaxed environment before their flight. ✈️
Glasgow Airport Lanyards, and a downloadable guide to the airport are available. ✈️
Heathrow Airport Sunflower lanyards can be worn to alert airport staff that you may need assistance. ✈️
Leeds Bradford Airport Lanyards and guide in conjunction with Leeds Autism Services are available. ✈️
Liverpool Airport Sunflower lanyards and Butterfly Flyer are available, as well as familiarisation visit to ther airport beforehand. ✈️
London City Airport You can contact the airport in advance and arrange for someone to greet you at the airport and walk you through to departures. Once you reach the departure lounge, you can use the airport’s Westpier which is a much quieter area. The airport recommends that you fly between 11am to 4pm as that’s a time when the airport is quieter. They also offer familiarisation session! ✈️
Luton Airport There are lanyards and guides available for those with hidden disabilities. They also have a quiet room that you can access and is is located next to Gate 17. ✈️
Manchester Airport Lanyards are available and allow the wearer and their family access to family and priority lanes at security as well as the special assistance lanes at the UK Border on arrival. There is also a Sunflower Room in Terminal 1 to help those with Special Assistance if you want to get away from the crowds.✈️
Newcastle Airport You can get an Autism passport to help you through the journey which also includes the use of Fast Track. A guide to the airport and an activity booklet are also available. ✈️
Prestwick Airport Lanyard available for persons with hidden disabilities. ✈️
Southampton Airport Green Helping Hands lanyards and booklets are available. You can also use their quiet route if you wanted to avoid the crowds. ✈️
Stansted Airport The airport has Sunflower lanyards for those with hidden disabilities. ✈️

As you can see, most airports are really making a difference in what they offer to passengers.

Travelling with autism – tips from our survey respondents

Our respondents replied with three key factors to consider when deciding to go abroad with their child on the autistic spectrum.

Flight length

When travelling, you want to keep your child comfortable at all times. Flight length is key to this – look at locations where you are going to keep the flight time as short as possible. With all the time at the airport at both ends to factor in, having to deal with a long flight on top of this could be too much to cope with.

Airport size

Some airports are more intimidating than others. If crowds and noise are big concerns for you, perhaps look at a more regional airport to fly from. Flying from somewhere like Bristol may be a quieter option than going from a major London airport.

Destination

There are of course a lot of factors to consider here, but think carefully about the time of year you are going. Is your chosen location a popular tourist destination? If so try to avoid the peak season or you won’t just be dealing with crowds at the airport. Will there be enough to keep the family entertained? Think about the food; is there enough variety and will you be able to get any particular food that your child won’t do without?

Time difference is another issue to consider, if there is a large time difference will this affect your child?

Things to watch out for

If have done your research and have decided to go abroad with your child, our survey respondents gave us some ideas of the things at airports that caused an issue.

  • First off, you have the big things that come with airports such as crowds, queues, and noise. Unless you have a very early flight or a very late flight, you are likely to encounter a lot of people. This means there will be queueing for nearly everything, and of course, a lot of noise. You may find that personal space becomes an issue, with people being impatient in queues or rushing to get to where they need to be.
  • Security is a pretty big deal – you will have to cope with all of the above on the wait to go through, and then there is the body scanner and the staff to deal with. Several times we were told about families coming up against issues at this point, with a parent being unable to go through the scanner with the child, or even worse, being separated. You should make it very clear from the beginning that your child has additional needs.
  • Unfortunately, you may also have to deal with other people staring, commenting, and so on. This is not helpful at all but unfortunately something a lot of our survey respondents had to deal with, especially when skipping queues and so on.
  • Check your seating on the plane. Sometimes you will have to pay extra to book seats in advance, although it may seem like an annoyance at the time, this is well worth doing as airlines have been known to split up families, even with young children. If you book your seats in advance this is one less worry!
  • Announcements are everywhere in airports and on planes, so if your child finds these disturbing make sure you pack headphones, earphones, or even ear defenders. Even on planes during quiet moments there can be an announcement at any time, and sod’s law it will come just as your child is finally drifting off to sleep!

Tips for Travelling with Autism

child at the airport

So, how do you deal with the myriad of complications? Of course, the above are just some of the things to keep in mind, there are plenty more and you will know what is most likely to affect your child.

Preparation! Don’t be afraid to contact everyone and anyone in advance. Contact the airport, the airline, and anyone else who you may encounter during your trip. You will never know what they will be able to help you with unless you ask. You should be able to get access to Special Assistance at the airport, which will help you fast track through queues.

Distractions are important. These could be headphones, ear defenders, iPods, iPads, Nintendo DSes or other handheld gaming devices. Remember however that your child will have to part with these in order for the device to be scanned at security, so bear this in mind! Or perhaps take a comfort item that your child is attached to, a soft toy, blanket or similar.

Utilise as much material as you can, for example Social Stories. This is where Manchester Airport has really helped matters by providing videos walking through the airport, however you can create pictures and documents to help envisage the journey through the airport and prepare your child for the different noises and sights they might see.

You can create timetables and checklists for your child to follow through.

This might enable you to pinpoint any problems in advance and help your child overcome them prior to the actual journey. Contact the airport and see if there is any chance of visiting in advance to do a “pretend” trip through the airport so it is not all new. This has become more and more possible in America, but it will depend on the airport itself and how close you live to the airport in question!

Remember that it’s okay to have a “whoops!” moment, or to make mistakes. It’s a new, scary experience for all of you, and it’s just about making it as comfortable as possible.

Look at your budget and decide whether you can book a lounge. It depends on which lounge and which airport, but many allow you to book in advance and have access for a few hours before your flight. These are usually much calmer and quieter places, with some food and drinks available, quieter seating areas and some magazines and so on. So it can be a great idea to book a lounge!

How can airports improve?

Airport may always be more complicated when travelling with a child or adult with ASD, but there are some steps that airports can take to simplify the process. They are already improving the disabled facilities, for example more and more are introducing Changing Places and Eagle 2 Lifter, so continuing this trend for those needing other forms of Special Assistance should be a no brainer!

Our respondents agreed on several points that would make their journeys a lot simpler!

Fast track

Fast track, Special Assistance, queue jump, whatever you want to call it, this is really necessary for families travelling together. This combined with Priority Boarding could go a long way to help families with children with ASD travel smoothly through the airport with minimal waiting around.

Visiting the airport beforehand

Being able to arrange to visit the airport before your flight and introduce your child to the environment could go a long way to helping them feel more relaxed in the airport and know what to expect. Some airports in America have been offering this, and some UK airports have mentioned that it is possible. It may be worth contacting the airport in advance and see what they can do, especially if you are fairly local!

A dedicated lounge

There are many commercially run lounges available at airports, but a dedicated special assistance lounge could provide the necessary calm and quiet environment to keep children with ASD within their comfort zone whilst they have to wait around.

In March 2017 Shannon Airport opened a Sensory Room, where passengers with ASD may go to relax away from the busy hustle and bustle of the airport. It was designed by Adam & Friends and will surely lead the way for similar initiatives at other airports. Following suit in October 2018 was Gatwick Airport, with the opening of their Sensory Room, providing a chilled and calming environment.

Wide-spread ASD training

UK airport staff are given training on how to assist those requiring special assistance, however this is often limited to those needing wheelchairs or those with physical disabilities. Our respondents suggested that more specific training in regards to customers with ASD would be beneficial in helping them to understand how best to help these passengers.

Keep families together

families together

Far too many respondents to our survey mentioned being split up from their children at varying points in their airport journey. This is entirely unacceptable for any family, let alone a family with children with ASD!
If you are worried about not being seated together then read our helpful guide on how to avoid being split up with your family.

We are very grateful to all those who responded to our survey, and we hope that some of the tips and advice provided can help others travelling through airports with children! It’s time now for airports to really step up and improve the assistance on offer to those with ASD, hopefully by incorporating some of the suggestions above.

About Alice Fowler

I love to travel and working in the airport parking world for nearly five years has given me inside out knowledge of the industry. I love to help travellers get the best out of their trip, and their journey to the airport is an important part of that. Whether it's using our data to spot trends and pinpoint when people can save money, or opening the lid on airport parking tips and tricks, if it helps our customers, I'll write about it!

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46 responses to “Autism and UK airports – Improving assistance for passengers with autism”

  1. I am travelling from Gatwick in July with my 7yr old who has tourettes. dyspraxia . adhd and sensory and speech and language disorder…travelling with my son can be stressful for him and us and have never been made aware of any support with airlines or airports my son wears a back pack with a lead strap attached to keep him safe as has no danger awareness.. I had a bad experience with one airline with my son when he was younger as he would not wear his belt on board the plane I was trying to settle him and get his belt on the staff were rude and un helpful…also the public are so rude as they stare and point which while waiting in line to board can be un comfortable my son will say things he should not and ask questions out loudly about others and want answers there and then …my sons ears are affected while flying and he will scream or cry again never had any help just stared at or tuts from other passengers …..what should be a exciting experience for my little boy can be an exhausting experience he can not help his behaviour but the people staring and pointing can…. more help needs to be available and easy to find once stepping in to the airport…

    • Hi Becky,

      I’m sorry that you have had a distressing time in the past, that cannot be pleasant for you or your son at all.

      Were you aware that Gatwick are currently offering lanyards for passengers with Hidden Disabilities, much like the those you explained your son has? These lanyards are to make the airport staff aware that the wearer may need assistance, may struggle with the experience or that special care be taken.

      They also have a great booklet on how to make your journey easier, detailing the special assistance desk locations and contact information for the terminals, click here to have a look.

      With regards to his ears hurting on the plane, have you tried letting him watch / listen to something on a tablet or phone with headphones as a distraction? We have had a few parents say that they have found this to work with their children.

      Above all, it’s always worth contacting the airport and your airline to let them know in advance, that way they can both advise you of any ways in which they can further assist you and your son to make the journey a bit more comfortable.

      Wishing you all the best with your next trip, we hope your son has a much more enjoyable experience this time!

      Franki

  2. I am travelling from Heathrow Terminal 5 with British airways in August. My daughter has autism and crowds/noises and queuing are very stressful for her. I have flown from Manchester before and they were brilliant, however I cannot find anywhere on the Heathrow website that helps and I have emailed without reply, the same can be said of BA. Ideally we need seats with room (bulkhead) or right at the back where there is room for her to move. So far all have proved to be unhelpful. Do you have any suggestions? I am dreading it…

    • Hi Fiona,

      Sorry to hear that you have yet to get a response from Heathrow. May I suggest you call the airports Special Assistance Team on 0844 335 1801 and BA Special Assistance Team on 0344 493 0787
      Option 3 to discuss your options? You’re more likely to get an instant response! You could even try tweeting them both at @HeathrowAirport and @British_Airways both are very responsive on Twitter!

      I hope you get some answers. Have a lovely holiday

      Franki

      • Thanks for these phone numbers , however…. I called today and was told by BA that they have no program in place to assist families with ASD kids. I also tried Heathrow Special assistance, who,told me they have no program either and that I needed to call BA. I can’t believe a company like BA and an airport like Heathrow are lagging so far behind Liverpool and Manchester airports in such an important area.

        • Hi Claire,

          Oh, that’s so sad to hear that one of our biggest airports and airlines don’t have support in place. Very disappointing!

          I know this is for Manchester Airport, but they have a great Autism Awareness Programme and have free downloadable packs to help ease the journey through the airport. Some of the photos are specific to Manchester, but the activities are generic and can be used in any airport and are aimed at making your child feel involved in the whole process – almost a distraction technique.

          Here’s a link to their packs if you’d like to take a look. I’m not sure if it will work, but it’s better than the information you have been provided with thus far – Come on Heathrow, step it up!!

  3. Hi,
    All this information is so helpful, however, we are flying on Saturday from Gatwick with our daughter who has Autism and severe anxiety with a flight time of 6am. I have tried calling, many times, special assistance at Gatwick mainly to ensure that we will be able to get a lanyard that time of the morning and also to check what other help they can offer but I’m finding it impossible to get someone to answer the phone. It’s not very reassuring! Is there another way to contact someone?
    Thanks

    • Hi Sue,

      Glad you have found it helpful, but sorry to hear you haven’t been able to get through to anyone. If you’re able to, I’d tweet them here @Gatwick_Airport as they are pretty good at being responsive!

      Hope you get a lanyard sorted!

  4. We’re travelling from Gatwick with BA to Mexico in 4 weeks with our 7 year old who has Aspergers and anxiety. We can’t find any info about wristbands only at Manchester Airport. Does anyone know what help we can get? Also I’ve read on here about lanyard?

    • Hi Leigh,

      It might be worth contacting Gatwick directly, however if you visit this page on their website you will see that they do offer lanyards and have staff specially trained to help those wearing them. It is not clear if you need to apply in advance or not – but there is an email there you can contact them on.

      Hope that helps – let us know how you get on!

  5. Hi have just found out about the lanyard programme thats in place for hidden disabilities at manchester. We are travelling from there in a few weeks with 2 grandchildren one who has hydrocephalus with learning disabilities. She can sometimes say inappropriate things to people and disruptive behaviour. How can we get a lanyard? many thanks

    • Hi Gail,

      Manchester Airport work with DisabledGo which aim to make the airport experience easier for those with disabilities. We suggest you contact the team at DisabledGo/Manchester Airport on 08712 710 711 or email customer.relations@manairport.co.uk with your request, they should be able to find you the most suitable solution for your grandchild, be that a lanyard or something else appropriate. (I believe the lanyard system at Manchester is in place for those with autism, the lanyard system at Gatwick covers all hidden disabilities)

      We hope this helps and you receive the assistance you require.

      Have a lovely trip!

  6. What a great article. My working therapy dog and I would LOVE to help destress people travelling with autism at Gatwick if only it were possible. Sure, as you say dogs attract a lot of attention but when my dog is wearing his official Pets As Therapy livery people are curious but kind and respectful and allow him to ‘work’ (ie get belly rubs!).

  7. My son is constantly stopped at Gatwick going through the body scanner & I’m always told it’s Random. My son is autistic & I feel he is being singled out I know that someone is viewing the cameras & deliberatly buzz the scanner when through this morning & same s……… I’m really getting sick of this.

  8. I have tried to get in touch with Manchester airport using the email link on the autism booklet and also the telephone number. The email link is no longer valid and emails are undeliverable, and the telephone number has changed. Surely a big organisation like Manchester airport should keep these things up to date.

  9. My son has a physical impairment. We are flying from Gatwick in September to Canada. He has a wheelchair which he uses to get around in. Last time we flew he was a baby. My question is what do I tell them about his disability and wheelchair? We are bringing our own wheelchair instead of using the one provided by the airport. Also my son is on medication for his bladder issues. My daughter is also coming on the flight.

    • Hi Leah

      Firstly, I’d contact both your airline and the airport to let them know your son will be bringing his own wheelchair. They can then advise you how far he can go with his own equipment (usually to the aircraft doors, but good to check).

      Other than that, you could opt for Premium Security at Gatwick; for £5 per person, you can benefit from:
      “A Premium security experience, dedicated security lane, queue-free, stress-free gateway to our shops, restaurants and lounges” which may make the security process a little easier for you and your family

      When it comes to medication, that should be fine to take through so long as it’s in the original packaging. If taking it your hand luggage, it may be worth having a doctors note if there is a large quantity.

  10. Travelling out of Dublin terminal 2 in July was horrendous , no quiet corner to take my son ,found staff at checkin and security very abrupt . I also asked customer service for a lanyard or some assistance for a child with ASD and was abruptly told ‘ you need to email us before we can’t help’ never again Dublin is now a no fly zone for our family.

    Travelled via Manchester the following week and I was dreading it after Dublin however it was a completely different story , staff at every point went out of their were to help and asked us what we needed. At one point a member of staff took us from the main queue to a quiet security fast track .

    Obviously had ASD awareness training.

    Obtained a lanyard at information which proved very useful.

    Very impressed overall and my son sailed through . We found the sunflower quiet room and had 20 mins of calm! Awesome. Well done Manchester airport .

    • Hi Lesley,

      Thanks for sharing your two rather different experiences with us! Such a shame to hear that about Dublin, but so pleased you and your son had a much nicer experience at Manchester Airport. Hopefully Dublin can take heed!

  11. Hello,
    I was wondering if anyone can please help me. My son and I travel from the UK more than likely Manchester airport to New Zealand.
    My son is showing signs of ADHD, ASD and possibly autism however; as he is not of school age my doctor will not refer or see him, as the school has to refer him.
    I have flown with him before and it was not pleasant for all those involved, as we are flying to the other side of the world I am so anxious about the flight. I was hoping to get a pass or something that would let people know he is not an out of control child, as on previous trips the looks and tuts I get, as though we have let him run wild since birth. I just want this to be a nice experience for him and those involved, we do not fly until Sept/Oct and I am already talking about the flight, as I have found if I tell him things in advance he does handle things better, as he does not like surprises or loud noises. I have noise cancellation headphones for him, but as I can not get him ‘properly diagnosed’ before our flight, is there anything else I can do?
    Any suggestions or help on this is greatly appreciated, as I have exhausted every avenue I think, so if there is anything anyone can suggest, I am all ears.
    Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Saritta,

      Thanks for your comment. We’d suggest talking to your airline and airport to see what measures they have in place and if there is anything they can offer, Sunflower lanyards or Pins are usually available.

      From our experience, the noise-cancelling headphones work wonders, as do activity packs. Some airports have these or you can make your own; think photo scavenger hunts around the terminal or “how many people have glasses” games etc.

      Hoping you and your son have a pleasant travel experience when you get to!

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