How airlines are making travel easier for autistic passengers

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

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 behavior. It happens when others misinterpret behaviors 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 traveling. Raymaker says that challenges at the airport are just one example of the systemic issues neurodivergent travelers face, often rendering trips difficult or impossible for some autistic adults.

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 traveling adults. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first U.S. study about adults living with an autism spectrum disorder—estimating that more than 5 million adults in the United States are autistic. 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 travelers.

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Over the last few years, several travel companies have implemented programs to increase accessibility for neurodivergent travelers, and many took time during the pandemic to boost competency with additional training. Many autistic travelers 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 travelers. 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-centered room. After asking the autistic community for feedback, the company realized 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 customizable. 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 travelers 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.

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

Such needs can include stimming—or repetitive, self-stimulating behavior—such as hand flapping, tapping or rocking, clearing the throat, and various other movements or vocalizations. Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez, an autistic occupational therapist, says that all staff should be trained to identify this behavior 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 behavior, 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 travelers 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 travelers. 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 familiarize yourself with typical transit encounters.

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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 travelers 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 personalized 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.