Navigating Air Travel as an Autistic Adult
At a Glance
Challenges and Barriers: Autistic adults face exhaustion, sensory overload, and lack of understanding during air travel. Accommodations often focus on caregivers, and airport/airline staff may not anticipate autistic needs.
Effective Preparation: Consulting both airline and airport for accommodations, contacting customer service before ticket purchase, and utilizing TSA Cares program can help mitigate challenges and enhance the travel experience.
Strategies for Success: Planning detailed itineraries, creating contingency plans, and bringing comfort items can support autistic individuals to manage unexpected stress and disruptions during their air travel journey.
For autistic adults, air travel can be an exhausting and sometimes intimidating process. Not only is there the prospect of sensory overload and a tumultuous schedule, many autistic travelers have to contend with the risk of being flagged by security simply for acting the way they normally would.
To top it all off, much of the guidance and resources that do exist are geared towards parents and caregivers as opposed to autistic solo travelers and many airport and airline employees simply aren’t prepared to anticipate autistic needs or provide significant accommodations.
In a National Geographic article on the topic, autistic researcher Dora Raymaker points out that autism can be a hidden disability because “it’s not always apparent to strangers that extra assistance is needed,” and even cites a time when she allowed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to put her in a wheelchair just so she could get the accommodations she needed.
The bottom line is that much of the air travel process can easily be disrupted by a systemic lack of understanding of and accommodations for autistic people. At the same time, airlines and airports are beginning to develop a better understanding of where they have fallen short on this issue and there are also steps that individuals can take to try to mitigate some of the worst barriers and inconveniences that air travel can present.
This blog post offers a series of tips that can help both with taking advantage of whatever accommodations may be out there and to plan for the potential challenges that can come with air travel.
Consult with the airline AND the airports.
One reality of air travel is that the process is handled by different organizations at different times. If you rely on a single organization for accommodations at the airport, there is a reasonable chance that there could be gaps where the process is simply out of their hands and you may be left to figure things out for yourself. That is why it is crucial to contact both your airline AND the airports you will be traveling to.
Not only are they likely to offer accommodations at different points in the process, you may find that one entity is much less prepared to offer accommodations in general and want to try to see if you can get help from the others to fill that particular gap.
Some common things to discuss with airlines might include the check-in process, the onboarding process and in-flight accommodations while common things to discuss with the airport might include where to find a quiet waiting area, how to navigate security, and even practicing the process ahead of time in some cases.
Contact customer service before buying your ticket.
As crucial as it is to contact the airline and airport, it’s also incredibly helpful to contact them before you commit to paying for a ticket so that if a given company is not able to help you in the way that you need you will not be stuck trying to improvise a solution or feel like you simply have to endure an extremely unpleasant situation just so you can make your flight.
While you might not always be able to anticipate exactly which airport you intend to use, it can definitely help to reach out to a few airlines you are considering to see how they may be able to assist.
This great article from Autism New Jersey helpfully links some of the special assistance programs offered by several major airlines, including American, Delta, Jet Blue, Southwest, and United.
Check if you can receive any helpful security accommodations.
For some autistic people, the single most stressful part of any air travel is the security checkpoint. Not only is it a crowded, uncertain process, there is always the risk of being flagged by TSA agents as “suspicious” simply for acting in a way that doesn’t register as fitting allistic norms.
The added intrusion of a special pat down or search can only add to the stress and lead to a snowballing traumatic experience. While we wish we could say there was a way to avoid this risk entirely, there is at least one step you can take ahead of time to try to mitigate the risk of such a negative situation.
The TSA Cares program allows people to submit a form at least 72 hours before their flight to request special assistance and consideration. If it is less than 72 hours until your flight the form also includes a number you can call to make a request. While the TSA is unlikely to ever be perfect in this regard, it certainly does not hurt to give them every opportunity to do the right thing and offer you the accommodations and fair treatment you deserve.
Plan out the whole process in as much detail as you find helpful.
Beyond the systemic challenges associated with air travel, one reason it can be so challenging is that it represents such a major deviation from a regular schedule! While some people are not particularly bothered by this adjustment, others may find themselves thrown off in time-sensitive situations, which is the last thing we want!
If you are concerned about navigating such an unusual schedule, one great way to prepare is plan out your steps ahead of time and keep your plans handy in the event that you need to consult them. Travel can be fundamentally hectic and chaotic, and a reminder of how things are supposed to go can make all the difference in the world.
Make a basic contingency plan to anticipate the most common issues.
Of course, if there is one drawback to planning things out ahead of time, it’s that things don’t always go according to plan. Flights get canceled, the folks at security somehow don’t get the memo about your accommodations, and strangers try to strike up conversations while you both wait on a flight. So many little things can unexpectedly throw us off our plans!
The good news is that we can try to anticipate some of the most common ways that things can go wrong with plans at the airport and try to anticipate what we might do in those situations. For example, preparing for a potential flight cancellation might entail knowing who you will try to speak to and what alternate flight times are acceptable for your schedule.
If security seems unprepared to offer the accommodations you’d been promised, you can prepare ahead of time to think about what you’ll say in that situation, and check if there’s any information you can reference that might help them figure things out.
Likewise, it’s possible to prepare some basic scripts to explain why you don’t want to chat. A good rule of thumb is that if you are worried about the potential for a particular situation, that’s probably a good situation to have a contingency plan for!
Bring comfort items that you feel will help in an unexpected stressful situation.
Despite our best efforts, sometimes airports just put people into uncomfortable situations and there’s not much to be done other than try our best to tolerate them and push through. Given that airports are already such stressful environments it can be hard to find an outlet to unwind or decompress should such a situation unfold.
That is just one reason why it can be so valuable to bring a comfort item that is relevant to you, whether it is something to help block out some sensory input or a fidget item to hold and squeeze or a favorite food that helps boost your mood, it is a great idea to have one or more of those things handy for yourself in the event that they become necessary.
We hope these tips have offered some helpful methods for navigating the challenges of air travel and that over time improved airline and airport accommodations will render such extra efforts unnecessary.
In the meantime, if you are interested in sharing your own travel experiences or things you wish you’d known about air travel before you started then we’d love to hear from you! Just drop us a line at email@example.com and in the meantime happy traveling!