Autism – what help can you expect from airlines?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is treated as an invisible disability or hidden disability. Other hidden disabilities include Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, learning difficulties and sensory loss.
The challenges facing ASD travellers may not seem as obvious to other passengers as those faced by people with a visible disability. However, for an autistic child or adult, a journey on an aeroplane can cause various types of stress, including disruption to routine, navigating unfamiliar environments and an overload of sensory stimulation, from loud noises and popping ears to strange smells.
For children, in particular, airports and aeroplanes can be very problematic places. Everything that is happening – from the queuing and crowds to security announcements and enclosed spaces – is far removed from their everyday lives. Flying can be an overwhelming experience for anyone with ASD, especially for children.
Recommendations for parents and carers is to plan ahead. Build up a story of what to expect when you go on holiday and keep telling it in the weeks before you travel. This could take the form of a picture book, for example. Draw in a picture form what is going to happen the day you travel, including how you are going to get to the airport, how you get into the airport terminal, how you leave your luggage at the check-in desks and the process of getting through security.
Some airports – such as Gatwick – have done this for you and have created visual guides for ASD travellers. Find out more about the help you can get at airports.
In fact, Gatwick Airport was the first to recognise the needs of ASD travellers, back in 2016. Working with local charity Autism Support Crawley, as well as with national organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society, Visualise and the National Autistic Society, they devised ways they could improve the airport experience for those travelling with autism. This led to the development of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, a discreet symbol that could be used to identify someone who may need support, help, or just a little more time in shops, transport, or public spaces.
The Sunflower lanyard has since been adopted by airports throughout the world and by non-travel related businesses, including banks, supermarkets, and leisure centres. On World Autism Day 2021, Heathrow Airport lit up its own control tower with the sunflower lanyard and in March 2022, Melbourne in Australia launched the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Symbol initiative across the whole city, to help people with hidden disabilities signal that they may require assistance at events, businesses and on public transport.
Gatwick also introduced autism-aware training programmes for its staff and is one of several UK airports to have received the Autism Friendly Award, along with Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh. In the North Terminal they have a sensory room. Manchester Airport also provides ASD travellers with a calming space, called the Sunflower Room. Many airports publish booklets, which can be obtained in advance of travel and provide guidance and advice. Newcastle Airport has also devised an Autism passport, which includes the use of Fast Track.
When it comes to flying, it is helpful to know what assistance might be available from the airline you have booked with. Or you may want to decide who you fly with based on the assistance they offer.
On World Autism Awareness Day in April 2019, British Airways were the first airline to receive an Autism Friendly Award from the National Autism Society, in recognition of its efforts to train staff in autism awareness. And in February 2022, BA became the first UK airline to formally recognise the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower.
Low-cost champions EasyJet have been known to go out of their way to accommodate ASD passengers, by inviting them to the front of the boarding queue for example, regardless of whether they have booked speedy boarding, or found a quiet space in an airport if a flight is delayed.
Some airlines have been proactive in developing particular types of Special Assistance to support their ASD travellers and travelling companions. However, if an airline does not specifically mention hidden disabilities, you can still contact their special assistance or customer care departments to find out what they can do to help. If you made your booking through a travel agent, then speak to them first, and they can contact the airline on your behalf.
Here’s a brief rundown of some of the more popular airlines that fly from the UK, and what support they offer ASD travellers.
Popular airlines that fly from the UK and what support they offer to ASD travellers
|Airline||Online info||Lanyard||Special assistance|
|Aer Lingus||Visual guides||Available at airport||Available|
|British Airways||Visual guides||Lanyard||Available|
|EasyJet||Available at airport||Available|
|Emirates||Online guide||Lanyard||Meet & Greet available|
|Loganair (GLA)||Available at airport||Available|
|Lufthansa||Available at airport||Available|
|Norwegian||Available at airport||Available|
|Qatar||Available at airport||Available|
|Ryanair||Available at airport||Available|
|SAS||Available at airport||Available|
|TUI||Online Guide||Available at airport||Available|
|Virgin Atlantic||Visual guides||Hidden disability symbol||Available|
|Vueling Airlines||Online Guide||Available at airport||Available|
|Wizz Air||Available at airport||Available|
Aer Lingus have created a series of helpful visual guides, which outline a typical customer journey and have been designed to help families and individuals with autism prepare for their upcoming trip. Families and individuals are also welcome to send a special assistance request, so the airline ground staff and crew can help to make your flight a pleasant one.
The first airline to be accredited with the National Autism Society’s Autism Friendly Award, BA operates staff training to help provide a seamless travel experience for autistic travellers. Sunflower lanyards are available, specific seat requests can be accommodated and individual safety briefings before departure are also offered. Contact BA at least 48 hours prior to your flight to request assistance and discuss individual requirements.
Contact the Special Assistance team as soon as possible after booking if you would like to request a specific seat and discuss what types of assistance can be offered, which can include help from boarding gate to seat on the aircraft, stowing baggage securely in the overhead locker, disembarkation assistance and retrieving checked-in baggage. More helpful advice.
If you are flying with Emirates, you’ll be pleased to know that Dubai is a designated Sunflower airport. Emirates can also arrange a meet and greet service at the airport to/from the aircraft and staff and crew will explain directional signs and show how to get to immigration, security, the boarding gate and quiet areas and lounges. Priority boarding is offered if required. To call Emirates in the UK: 0344 8002777.
Jet2 cabin crew receive training in dealing with passengers with hidden disabilities, as do Jet2 Customer Helpers. Contact the Special Assistance Team before travel to ask us about any specific requirements. You can also just make the staff aware at check-in and they will make every effort to accommodate your needs throughout your journey.
Request assistance at the time of booking or call them: 0344 800 2855.
Call at least 48 hours before departure to request assistance and to ensure you receive the best support: 0800 83 84 267.
You can make your booking online and request any special assistance you might need at the same time. Or call 0330 828 0854.
Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney are all designated Sunflower airports and Cairns, Canberra, Hobart and Perth plan to be soon. For assistance on the flight, call Qantas at least 48 hours in advance on 0800 964 432. If you have booked through a travel agent, ask them to organise assistance accordingly.
Call at least 48 hours prior to travel. UK contact centre: 0330 912 7415.
Speak directly to one of their Special Assistance agents by phone: 01279 358588.
Contact Customer Service at least 48 hours prior to departure.
Call the specialist phone line: 0203 451 2688 and you’ll find a friendly and knowledgeable Customer Welfare team on hand. Free of charge seat allocations are available.
The team at Virgin Atlantic have developed their own hidden disability symbol, which you can download and slip inside your passport. You can then show it discreetly to anyone in a Virgin Atlantic uniform and they will know you might need a little extra help, reassurance and patience. Contact Special Assistance at least 72 hours in advance to request priority check-in, pre-boarding or delayed boarding, pre-assigned standard seating, bulkhead seating and to inform them of your requirements. Virgin has also created a guide on what to expect once onboard one of their aircraft.
Book special assistance online at the time of booking or call their Customer Services Centre at least 48 hours before travel.
Request special assistance at the time of booking or call the 24/7 Special Assistance Call Centre 0330 977 044 4 at least 48 hours prior to departure. Make sure you arrive at check-in at least two hours prior to the flight departure.
Some final tips and advice
1) Consider visiting the airport for a practice run to familiarise yourselves with the layout and the check-in areas. Check with the airport first – some run specific tours.
2) Booking seats right at the back could make you more comfortable and, if your party is more than two or three, consider booking a couple of seats in front rather than across the aisle.
3) Don’t forget to take those all-important comforting items for the journey, like blankets and toys (don’t wash them beforehand) as well as food and snacks – including chewy foods for oral stimulation.
For more advice on travelling with autism visit the National Autistic Society Holiday Guide.