April is World Autism Awareness Month! Spreading awareness and acceptance for people with autism is important every single day. In honor of that, we wanted to highlight some outstanding programs that make it easier for travelers with autism to fly — an experience that can be very difficult due to changes in routine and unpredictability, especially if it is a passenger’s first time.
Sensory-Friendly Airport Suites
In 2019, Pittsburgh International Airport opened a suite with sensory-friendly rooms designed for travelers with autism. The lounge also features a simulated airplane cabin where travelers can get acquainted and more comfortable prior to boarding their flight. Airports in other cities such as Seattle, Atlanta and London offer similar suites as well. Lounges like these make the transition for neurodivergent travelers easier by offering an escape from the overwhelming airport crowds.
Practice Airport Walk-Throughs
Airports in major cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and more, offer practice runs for security and boarding, as well as airport tours for travelers with autism. These events, called Wings for Autism, are organized dozens of times per year by The Arc in partnership with TSA. Wings for Autism aims to ease pre-travel worries and create familiarity for travelers in new airport settings. The Arc even offers free online tools such as a virtual reality airport video.
JetBlue partnered with Autism Speaks to launch Blue Horizons for Autism, where passengers can practice waiting on lines and walking through the airport. The event has since expanded to over 11 cities.
Airports have incorporated TSA trainings centered around the recognition of neurodivergent behavior to prevent autistic travelers from being flagged as security risks. This is especially helpful in reducing the stress of mistakenly being pulled aside during the airport travel experience.
TSA created a help line called TSA Cares, where passengers with disabilities, their families, and caretakers can submit a form or call to ensure a smooth security checkpoint process during their upcoming travels.
Sunflower Lanyard Program
In 2016, Gatwick Airport in London launched the Sunflower Lanyard Program, a discreet way for travelers with disabilities to ask for extra assistance at the airport. This program aims to focus on travelers with more hidden disabilities, such as autism. In 2019, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport became the first airport in the United States to launch the program. There are now 142 airports in 20 countries that offer the Sunflower Lanyard Program — hoping to give travelers with disabilities more confidence.
Personalized Travel Agents
For more helpful information, the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, IBCCES, launched a website called Autism Travel, featuring autism-friendly destination and travel recommendations, as well as certified travel agents to assist in planning your next trip!