Autistic travelers ‘not adequately supported’ by UK airports

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The vast majority of the UK’s airports are failing to provide adequate support for autistic travelers, according to a recent report.

30 of the busiest departure points for air travelers were deemed to fall short in their provision for the estimated 700,000 people in the UK with the disability, following the survey by sensory equipment specialists Experia and the National Autistic Society.

Autistic travellers can often find air travel a difficult experience due to large crowds, noise, invasive security checks and disruption to familiar routines. But despite this being a widespread condition, just 11 out of the 30 airports contacted (37 per cent) provided evidence of having worked with autism charities to improve the knowledge of their staff.

The research also found that information is not always easily available for autistic passengers - only 10 out of 30 airports (33 per cent) answered the phone the first time when contacted or had a section on their website dedicated to hidden disabilities such as autism.

And none of the airports had a designated quiet or sensory area for autistic travellers, while only seven (23 per cent) provided a specialised guidebook for autistic passengers.

The UK’s busiest airport, London Heathrow, was found to have only limited information, and staff on the Passenger with Restricted Mobility (PRM) desk were unable to provide full details of the support available when initially contacted by phone.

However, Manchester Airport has some of the most comprehensive services to support autistic flyers, offering an awareness pack that includes guidebooks and videos for each individual terminal. It also offers the passenger a wristband which discreetly alerts airport staff to the disability, allowing the person and their group to fast-track queues without drawing unwanted attention.

According to the research, 13 out of 30 airports (43 per cent) did not immediately offer assistance to find a quieter area of the airport. In some cases, airports replied that they would offer assistance through check-in and then leave it to the relevant airline.

In general, the research found that larger airports provided the most comprehensive services. However Liverpool Airport was notable for providing a dedicated section on their website, a guidebook for autistic passengers and an Autism Awareness voucher to enable a fast track through security.

And staff at a number of smaller airports such as Inverness and Belfast International had undergone specialist autism training.

Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: “Autistic people can easily get overwhelmed by too much information in public places, and noisy, bustling airports can pose huge challenges. If you’re autistic, sounds such as flight announcements combined with the high pitched beeping from access vehicles and machinery can cause you extreme distress and pain. Many also struggle to cope in crowds and queues and with unexpected events like flight delays. Small changes like clear information available online and designated quiet spaces would help autistic people to manage their anxiety and their sensory sensitivities.

“We’re currently working with several airports committed to improving the travelling experience for autistic people so great work is underway, but we need all UK airports to make the small changes that would mean more autistic people feel well supported and able to travel solo or with their families.”