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Travel Preparation for Adults and Children with ASD

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Flying with ASD

Read on for information and guidance about preparing for air travel for Adults and Children with Autism. Includes specific airport and airline information, and some FAQs.

What is ASD?

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Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a category that features 5 different disorders on the spectrum of developmental disability, each with different features and severity. Autism is the most common, and the most well-known autism spectrum disorder, and affects how people develop skills such as thinking, behaviour, social skills and language. It is a hidden disability, meaning that it is purely neurological and is not immediately apparent to other people. You can read more about travelling with other types of hidden disabilities here.

How can ASD affect your travel experience?

Although booking a holiday and planning for it can be exciting and stressful for any passenger, travellers with ASD may require some extra considerations to ensure a smooth airport and flying experience.

Travel involves unpredictability and uncertainty, along with changes in routine, crowds of people and new noises and sights, but with enough information, planning and preparation, passengers with ASD can still have a successful flight.

Before Travel

Before booking a holiday, you should carry out sufficient research into a destination to check that it is the right destination for the autistic person you are travelling with. For example, contact the hotel or destination to see if they have appropriate facilities, and to see if the staff will have a sound understanding of autism or disabilities in general. Some holiday venues will also advertise that they are suitable for autistic people. If the autistic passenger you are flying with is also a first-time flyer, you should try to keep flights as short as possible, for example a short-haul flight under 1 hour.

The National Autistic Society recommend that if you are planning to go on holiday with an autistic adult, you should involve them in the planning and booking process, as sudden changes in plans or routines may cause anxiety, meltdowns or challenging behaviour. They also recommend taking the following steps to prepare passengers for changes when travelling:

  • Look at visual images of the destination and hotel, such as on the internet or in brochures to begin the familiarisation process. Create a visual support guide for reference from this, such as a leaflet with photos or diagrams to help them remember their destination and what it will be like.
  • Compose a realistic timetable, to help with organisation when at your destination. This will also help passengers with autism keep routine and structure in their holidays.
  • Create social stories: the National Autistic Society have a great free tool which allows you to create stories of events or potential situations which help understanding and what to expect in certain situations and why. These may be particularly helpful in unavoidable travel circumstances such as flight delays, but also in normal circumstances such as going through airport security, boarding the plane and going to eat at a restaurant.
  • When travelling with an autistic child, talk to them and address any concerns they are having. You can try to help concerns by reading a relaxation book or by using a worry eater.

Before travelling, you should also contact all providers you are using to see what they can do to assist your travels. For example, this can be the airline, the airport or hotel. You should not only make them aware that you are travelling with a passenger with autism, but also let them know of any special requirements there may be. You should also check the check-in arrangements with the airline that you are flying with, as they may be able to arrange a different check-in time, or at a different, quieter place in the airport. They may also be able to offer you priority or last boarding, so that you don’t have to board with crowds.

What can Alternative Airlines do to help?

If you have booked flights with Alternative Airlines, please contact us or add a note to the reservation when booking under ‘Additional Requests’, and we will do our best to assist you by passing on the information to the relevant airline.

At the airport

Even with the preparation before travel, arriving at and being in the airport can also be problematic. However, we recommend familiarising yourself with the layout and check-in areas online. This can be done by looking up pictures of the airport, and maps of the airport showing where you will be. At some airports such as London Gatwick, they welcome people to come to the airport’s check-in areas before the date of travel, so that passengers with autism can familiarise themselves with the layout and feel of the place. You can also familiarise yourself with the airport and flying process ― we've put together a guide for first-time fliers which may be useful.

London Gatwick have also produced an autism-friendly visual guide of the airport, to help passengers familiarise themselves before travel of what to expect. It can also be used as a check-list guide on the day of travel. You can get more information from the Special assistance FAQ page on the Gatwick Airport website.

You can also create an itinerary or timetable for your journey to and through the airport, detailing which time you will be at each section such as check-in, security and boarding gate. This will help with keeping a routine during your travels.

When at the airport, also make sure you use your prepared materials (from the section above) such as social stories, relaxation books or worry eaters.

Some airports will be able to provide you with a lanyard, which will allow staff to be able to discreetly identify travellers with autism or other hidden disabilities.

UK airports should all be well-equipped to make air travel more accessible to passengers with autism, due to new CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) guidelines. See the table below to see what UK airports are doing to be more autism-friendly for adults and children with ASD. It includes information on airlines providing online guides, lanyards, quiet routes and quiet areas.

Aberdeen Online Yes No No
Belfast International Online Yes No No
Birmingham Online Yes Yes (Escorted) No
Bournemouth Online Yes Yes (Escorted) No
Bristol Video & Online Yes Yes (Escorted) No
Doncaster Online Wristband No No
East Midlands Online Yes Yes (Escorted) No
Edinburgh Video & Online Yes Yes (Escorted) No
Exeter Video & Online Yes Yes No
Glasgow Online Yes Yes (Escorted) No
Leeds Bradford Online Yes Yes (Escorted) No
Liverpool Online Voucher Yes (Escorted) Yes
London City Online Yes No No
London Gatwick Online Yes Yes Yes
London Heathrow Video & Online Yes No Yes
London Luton Online Sticker No No
London Southend Online Wristband No No
London Stansted Video & Online Wristband Yes No
Manchester No Yes No No
Newcastle Online ’Passport’ Yes (Escorted) No
Southampton Online Yes Yes Yes

There are also many airports in the US who are making air travel more accessible. For example, some will let families into the airport to do a practice run of the airport security process and mock boarding, to get a deeper understanding and familiarisation of the experience before travelling. The airports that currently do this are Washington Dulles, Philadelphia International, Atlanta and Boston Logan. If you are in doubt, phone the airport in advance of travel to see if your local airport will do something similar or what they can do to help.

It may also be useful to prepare an information card to show or handout to any staff or people you may encounter. This will be designed to inform people about autism and how it affects individuals, and how best they can interact with you. This should be in your language but also translated to the language of the country you are travelling to.

Airport Security

The airport security is necessary, but can often be a complicated process. It can be scary for passengers with ASD, and especially for children with autism and passengers with sensory issues.

Passengers should make sure they arrive at the airport with plenty of time, to allow extra time for things such as security screening.

When travelling in the USA, passengers can carry with them a TSA disability notification card, which will allow staff to understand what extra needs are required for each individual passenger. In the UK, many airports will provide you with a discreet lanyard or badge so that passengers with autism can be identified by staff and accommodated for.

Passengers should also let security staff aware of any medications or medical accessories they are carrying with them. Passengers with autism may also be travelling with comfort items such as weighted blankets, noise cancelling headphones, sensory toys or lap pads. These will need to be screened in the x-ray machine, so it is a good idea to prepare passengers of this experience, telling them that these items will need to be taken away from them and returned as soon as they have been scanned and checked out.

Passengers should also be prepared in advance with the knowledge that they will need to be screened by a metal detector, but all they need to do is walk through. Social stories for airport security are a great idea because they can be useful if the passenger is picked for a pat-down. Passengers can request at any point to speak with a supervisor or request a private screening where a travelling companion can accompany you.

On the plane

There are many things that can be done when on the plane to mean passengers with autism can have a great flying experience.

Passengers can choose to select their seat, to ensure they are comfortable when flying. This can be done online when booking with Alternative Airlines, or by contacting the airline’s special assistance team who will be able to arrange this for you. You may also be able to request the bulkhead section, which feel less confined and will eliminate the possibility of seat-kicking. Window seats may be best for passengers who may be irritated about having to constantly get up or may be worried about sitting next to a stranger, whereas an aisle seat would be better for passengers who may feel enclosed and enjoy a walk around the plane, or need to use the toilet regularly.

Although you may have contacted the airline in advance of flying, it may be a good idea for you to remind the cabin staff when you get on the plane that a member of your party has autism and you may require special assistance.

Passengers may wish to have on the plane items of comfort. This can be things such as a weighted blanket, noise-cancelling headphones to block out the loud engine plane sounds, books and toys to keep occupied during the flight.

Be prepared with food and drink: it can be bought with you on the plane, as long as it fits within the regulations. Alternatively, you may wish to pre-book a meal so that you know what you will get before your flight departs and plan accordingly.

Unfortunately, sometimes things like flight delays are unavoidable, meaning your set plans may change. Although no one enjoys their flight being delayed, for an autistic passenger this can be challenging as it is changing the set travel plan without having any control over it. You can prepare a social story for situations like this, to help understanding of this. Similarly, you can also usually track your flight using a flight tracker. European-based airline easyJet have a good Flight Tracker app, which shows any delays and reasons why. Alternatively, Ground Crew are a good source of information to find out information on your flights, so go and ask them.

Flying with ASD and Autism

What are British Airways doing to help Autistic customers?

In April 2019, on World Autism Awareness Day, British Airways was awarded the ‘Autism Friendly Award’ by the National Autism Society. This was because of its efforts to train staff in awareness of autism, and helping to create an individualised and seamless travel experience for its autistic travellers.

British Airways will help provide you with a seamless airport and flying experience. Passengers with Autism should contact British Airways at least 48 hours before your departure time, who will be able to arrange airport assistance and any other specific needs that can be catered for. As part of the UK airport assistance, passengers with autism will receive a sunflower lanyard which subtly and discreetly notifies staff that the individual has a hidden disability and may require additional assistance. British Airways will also accommodate specific seat requests, when you contact them 24 hours prior to departure. The airline will also happily give the safety briefings individually before departure.

What are easyJet doing to help Autistic customers?

Autistic passengers travelling with easyJet can contact the Special Assistance team, who will run through what can be done to assist them in their travels. easyJet allow passengers to select their seat, and try their best to ensure accompanying passengers are also sat together. To ensure this happens, however, the airline recommends passengers to contact them as soon as possible after booking your flight. Additional assistance provided may include:

  • Assistance getting from a designated meeting point at the airport.
  • Assistance through the customs and security processes
  • Assistance from the boarding gate to the plane seat
  • Making sure your cabin bag is stored directly above you in the overhead locker
  • Assistance getting off the plane after landing
  • Assistance retrieving your checked luggage and mobility equipment
  • Assistance getting you to a meeting point in the airport

What is Gatwick Airport doing to help their Ausitic customers?

Gatwick airport provides assistance to children and vulnerable adults with hidden disabilities, including those with autism when departing or landing from the airport. Gatwick airport have been awarded an ‘Autism Friendly’ award by the National Autism Society. From the assistance reception area, passengers can pick up a sunflower lanyard which can be worn so that Gatwick staff will recognise it and understand your hidden disability, and that you may need assistance or extra time. As mentioned above, Gatwick Airport also provide an autism-friendly visual guide which helps familiarise passengers with what to expect and the processes of the airport. Although the airport does not currently offer specific tours of the airport and security process in advance, they do welcome passengers to visit the airport to become familiar with the airport layout and check-in areas.

Can autistic passengers travel on their own?

In some cases, passengers with ASD can be unaccompanied for their flight. However, most airlines follow the guidelines that if a passenger is able to understand the following, they will be allowed to travel without a travel companion:

  • If the passenger is able to understand the safety briefing on their own
  • If the passenger is able to get out of their seat and to an exit in the case of an emergency without assistance
  • If the passenger is able to put on a life jacket, oxygen mask and unfasten their seatbelt without assistance
  • If the passenger is able to take care of their personal needs during the flight

If the above is not met, passengers will usually need to have a travel companion who is an adult (16 years or over), who is physically and mentally fit, and who is capable of assisting them in their flight and travels.