By Alex Stratikis, Autistic Traveler & Founder of Autism Adventures Aboard
Flights can be stressful, they can be intimidating, and, worst of all, they can be downright exhausting. Despite this, aircraft as a transportation method is now just part of the modern, convenient travel experience, especially if you want to go long distances.
Airports themselves can be a minefield for those who are autistic. But thankfully, things have improved significantly over time (varies country by country). Airlines, too, are getting better all the time at providing support to disabled passengers. However, the information online is almost always exclusively concerning autistic children, with no heed to the potential needs of autistic adults (there will be some crossovers, of course). However, if you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to contact the airline (even if it’s before you book), to make sure they can accommodate your additional needs.
I’ve also been aware that some airports allow autistic individuals and their families to do a trial run through the airport they are flying out of to make sure things go to plan. Almost all major airports in the USA are now offering these rehearsal programs! Hopefully, airports in other countries will soon catch up!
Initiatives such as these are phenomenal, and I would strongly recommend that you take advantage of them if you are eligible (and live in the US)! This provides you with the peace of mind that you might need to navigate the airport and the reassurance that there are professionals onsite who understand and can help you have a good experience.
Even if the airport you are flying from doesn’t offer such a program, you can make them aware of it and provide them with the knowledge of what other airports are offering.
Asking for help can feel uncomfortable for some, but if you think your specific needs won’t be met, then please ask for special assistance for your journey ahead of time. Asking for help can be done by directly contacting your chosen airline, either when purchasing tickets or via their customer assistance afterward. Of course, you can always contact the airport and discuss your needs with them.
So, what happens if you forget to do so prior and realize at the last minute that maybe you need extra support? Well, most airports also offer a special assistance desk that you can visit at the airport and explain your needs directly. Naturally, explaining this to someone on the day can be overwhelming for autistic individuals. So, if possible, make sure to make arrangements beforehand wherever possible.
Something else that every autistic traveler should be aware of is the ‘Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard’ program. Initially started in England, the initiative has spread globally and offers travelers with hidden disabilities (including autism) a discreet way of letting airport staff know that they may need extra support, assistance, or extra time for processing – without having to disclose their disability to anyone present outright. The lanyards can be purchased either online, or accessible through one of the participating airports by calling in ahead of time. Several large supermarket chains in the UK now also stock them for customers. However, this doesn’t appear to have reached a global level yet.
Apart from speaking to the airline before your flight to see what additional support they can offer, there’s a lot that you can do to minimize things that bring you discomfort when it comes to being on the flight. As is always the case, the first step in doing this is to recognize what exactly makes you overwhelmed and might lead to a meltdown or shutdown. Another idea for those sensitive to foods is to bring some ‘safe foods’ in case you find that there are either no suitable options available or what you wanted to order inflight has sold out (this happens more than you might think). Remember, all flights offer hot water for drinks, so if, for example, a pot noodle is one of your safe foods, take it on board and ask a flight attendant for hot water.
Some autistic people don’t like to be hemmed in, so perhaps an aisle seat is best to ensure that you don’t feel stifled. You can book your choice of seat upfront to ensure you get your preferred location onboard or let the airline know by contacting.
Always remember to pack various forms of entertainment (especially for longer flights). Things like books, magazines, handheld video games, iPads, or even preloading some movies/TV shows to your phone can all help take your mind off the flight itself. I like to bring headphones, earphones, a sleep mask, and earplugs. These can be especially useful to individuals who struggle with noise – some of my favorite songs, podcasts, etc keep me calm and focused and block out what is happening around me. Some people also like to carry relaxation medication or, with the help of earphones/headphones, concentrate on mindfulness exercises or meditation. These are things that are easy to do.
And note you can always ask ahead of time if you feel that getting off the flight before the other passengers would be helpful to you, to see if the airline can organize that for you. Similarly, suppose you prefer to remove yourself from all the madness of disembarkation. In that case, staying in your seat until the end and leaving last is best.
So, in summary, I would say the overall message here is to understand your needs and work within those parameters. You know your body and its limits better than anyone else. By understanding yourself, will you be able to effectively communicate those needs to airline/airport staff to ensure they can provide suitable accommodations for you. Lastly, never be afraid to ask for help (either directly, or via some other means of communication, such as email) and take part in any available options (such as the sunflower lanyard program) should you feel that they might help you with the whole flying experience.
If you want to know more about my travel experiences and destinations, please follow me on Instagram at “@autismadventuresabroad” or join my mailing list on my new website at www.autismadventuresabroad.com. You can also visit my Go Fund Me Page by clicking on this link https://gofund.me/cc62791d.
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