Tips for our biggest airport challenges

I recently posted the question on Twitter, “If you could ask the travel industry for three wishes to make travel less stressful, what would they be?” My question was met with an enthusiastic and significant response and I thank everyone who contributed to this article by sharing and/or Tweeting a response. Here is what I learned.

Overwhelmingly, the greatest challenges are in the airport and on the flight. Here are the compiled data.

Need # of Votes
Safe spaces/quiet rooms 5
Seat selection 3
TSA expedited screening 3
Priority pre-boarding 2
Detailed maps and instruction videos to study in advance 2

adult-airport-apparel-993607

Safe Spaces

My recommendation is for key card entry quiet rooms after each security line and one in each terminal. Some quiet rooms should have windows and others should not. This is the best way for autistic people to avoid bright lights, crowds, and noise while at the airport. Autistic travelers can pick up their key card or code at a self-check-in kiosk or information desk and it will work for all quiet rooms throughout the airport. It is the individual traveler’s responsibility to get to the airport with enough time for quiet room breaks between TSA security check points and arriving at their gate.

Seat Selection

It is getting more common these days to not have an opportunity to select your seat or to only have an option of a middle seat. Autistic travelers should have the option to choose a seat at the time they purchase a ticket. It is the traveler’s responsibility to check with the airline before purchasing a ticket to be sure a seat will be available for them. If there is no seat that will work for their needs, the airline should work with the passenger to find a flight that will meet their needs.

In the case that an autistic traveler chooses to book a flight without choosing a seat and there is a more favorable seat available, they should be given the option to switch seats. It is the responsibility of the passenger to inform the flight crew that they would like to change seats if possible.

Autistic children should always be given the option to choose a seat with their parent, guardian, or coach. This request should be made at the time the tickets are purchased and confirmed in writing before finalizing the purchase.

TSA Expedited Screening

At the time of writing this article, passengers enrolled in the TSA pre-check program were getting through the security line in approximately 5 minutes. Yes, that’s right… 5 minutes! This is a very affordable program at $85 for a five-year membership but is only available to U.S. Citizens. There may be similar programs in European countries and other regions, but I will need to do more research to learn more. If you have any information about other expedited security programs, please contact me or leave a comment at the end of the post.

For those with U.S. citizenship, go to https://www.dhs.gov/trusted-traveler-comparison-chart to find which TSA expedited program is best for you.

If you enroll in the program, be aware that not all airports participate. You can out which airports participate at https://www.tsa.gov/precheck/map. If your airport doesn’t participate, you can encourage them to join the program. Those who don’t participate should offer expedited service for autistic travelers.

TSA Cares is available for travelers with special circumstances, disabilities, or medical conditions. Contact TSA Cares 72 hours ahead of your scheduled flight with questions about procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint.

(855) 787-2227

TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov

If you are an autistic traveler who is traveling with someone, you can be screened without being separated from your travel companion. Inform the TSA Officer about your autism. Although you will need to either go through the metal detector, be subject to a pat-down, or both, you or your travel companion should talk to the TSA Officer about how to proceed.

Priority Pre-Boarding

You are not required to let the airline know ahead of time that you need assistance boarding, but it may help to do so. After all, most likely the assistance you need is to not be crowded and rushed when you board and be given the time to get situated on the plane and your carry on stowed.

You can board when they call for people who need assistance boarding, but you are not required to do so. The gate agents and flight attendants should not ask personal questions about your “disability” but you may choose to provide any information that you feel will help the situation.

It can be awkward because, for many of us on the spectrum, our autism is not “visible” to those who are ignorant of what it means to be autistic. Don’t worry about what other passengers think. You have as much right as everyone else does to enjoy your life and be happy and comfortable.

airport-amsterdam-arrival-2069

 

Detailed maps and instructional videos to study in advance

When I travel, I study maps for hours ahead of time. Whether I’m walking or taking public transportation, I study routes in detail before I go anywhere. I like to know what to expect ahead of time before I go anywhere. I’m guessing you to, too.

Detailed and color-coded airport maps and video tours of airports would go a long way toward reducing anxiety for autistic travelers. I’m not talking about a map that shows where terminals are in relation to each other. But interactive maps where we can click on a terminal to expand and see where all the gates, restrooms, restaurants, and shops are located.

I recently learned of an airport who did an Autism tour day before the airport opened. They walked a group of autistic people through the airport describing what they should expect each step of the way. For airports who can’t accommodate this, the video tour is a perfect alternative. We need to feel at least somewhat familiar with our surroundings before we get there. When I must go somewhere new, sometimes I go the day before to check the place out. I want to know where to park, how to walk to the specific room in the building, and where the restrooms are in relation to where I’ll be. If I need to be in multiple rooms, I want to know ahead of time how to get from room to room. Knowing the estimated walking time between each terminal will be helpful for planning how long our layover should be so that we don’t feel rushed and we have time to sit in the quiet room before we board a connecting flight.

Providing detailed instructions of the steps we take from the time we arrive at the airport to the time we land and exit at the other end, including how to get transportation from the airport, will make us feel more at ease. This should include examples both with and without a connecting flight, for domestic and international flights. The instructions should be provided as part of one or more video tours as well as provided in writing, with examples that travelers can follow along on the color-coded maps.

Finally, the safety videos and information should be posted on the airline and airport websites for review ahead of time.

All videos should be made with for people with sensory processing sensitivities, with minimal or no background noise or music.

Other Tips

Several people Tweeted comments and tips that were difficult to categorize. Lots of these could be solved by having an Autism Advocate available in each terminal.

Smells/odors. Is it possible to reduce, eliminate, or avoid strong perfume odors near the duty-free shops?

Reduce discrimination. The ASD community can advocate for this, not only at the airports, but for the entire travel industry. The travel industry should be willing to listen and possibly even happy for the opportunity to expand their clientele significantly.

Everything should be clearly marked in the airport. I’m not sure of the extent to which this is possible since there are so many signs everywhere, heading in every conceivable direction. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on how this could be achieved. For now, I would say that the signs in the airport should be color-coded to match the maps and videos. If an autistic traveler gets overwhelmed, we should be able to get assistance to our gate on request by talking to the Autism Advocate in their terminal.

Don’t bump autistic people from flights.  We get really stressed out and overwhelmed if anything changes. Being bumped from a flight could easily trigger a meltdown for autistic travelers. If there is no other option than to bump us from a flight, the Autism Advocate should offer personal assistance with rescheduling our flight.

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Please share your thoughts and tips below!

There is a lot of research and advocacy remaining. I understand that Heathrow has a great policy for Autistic travelers and I look forward to learning more. I also welcome your thoughts and feedback on what will make travel more comfortable and how we can work with the travel industry to get there. You can reach me at AutisticTravelCoach@gmail.com.

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