Top 4 ASD-Friendly Airports across North America and Europe

Discover how these North American and European airports excel in accommodating neurodivergent individuals.

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Traveling with a child on the autism spectrum can be a daunting task, as parents must navigate the intricacies of airport procedures, long queues, bustling crowds, and unfamiliar languages. 

However, airports worldwide are beginning to recognize the unique needs of the autism community, and Optism has identified four of the best airports in North America and Europe for neurodivergent individuals.

Vancouver International Airport

Vancouver, Canada

In June 2023, Vancouver International Airport unveiled its new “Beyond Accessibility” plan and introduced the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program in collaboration with the Pacific Autism Family Network.

Travelers with ASD can obtain a YVR Autism Access Sticker, which expedites airport procedures like screening, customs, and communication with cabin crew.

Passengers can also get a Sunflower lanyard at Customer Care and Information counters at the main and south terminals. While it doesn’t guarantee fast-track access, the lanyard helps staff identify those in need of additional assistance.

Vancouver International Airport also offers the I CAN Fly Resource Kit for travelers. This kit includes a visual story book and a step-by-step checklist of the airport routine. There’s also a YouTube video to help parents familiarize their children with the journey.

The airport hosts the annual Autism Accessibility Tours in April in partnership with the Canucks Autism Network. These tours help children with ASD navigate the travel experience and include a simulated take-off activity.

Vancouver Airport Authority’s CEO and president, Tamara Vrooman, expresses pride in supporting travel opportunities for autistic individuals and their families:  "The opportunity for autistic individuals and their families to practise the pre-flight process unlocks the potential for them to travel, which is something we’re so proud to be a part of and help facilitate."

For additional assistance, approach Customer Care or staff in blue jackets. Look for the Quiet Area at Gate D67 after security for a soothing space with seating, stretching mats, and soft lighting. 

For more information, please contact Customer Care at the counters, approach staff in blue jackets, or email customercallcentre@yvr.ca

Vancouver
Passengers in need of extra help can pick up a Sunflower lanyard at Vancouver International Airport.

Pittsburg International Airport

Pittsburg, USA

In 2019, Pittsburgh International Airport opened Presley's Place, a dedicated suite for neurodivergent travelers. Located in Concourse A near Gates 1-25, this 1,500-square-foot space provides sensory-friendly features like bubble towers, dimmable lights, rockers, hideaway corners, individual bubble tube rooms, and textured walls. 

It also includes a separate soundproof room, accessible changing stations in the restrooms, and adjustable sinks.

"We want to make flying accessible to everyone," says Christina Cassotis, the airport's CEO. “This room is an opportunity for special needs travellers from children to adults…to decompress and get prepared to fly.” 

To familiarize ASD children with the flying experience, the suite's entrance hallway was built to look a real jetway, with furnishings like plane cabin seats, overhead bins, and seat lights donated by American Airlines and Magee Plastics. ASD travelers can also join a first-time flyers class to experience a simulation.

Jason Rudge, the brain behind Presley's Place, explains, "A caregiver for a kid with autism might think that I’m never going to be able to fly anywhere with my family - it’s too hard.  Having a sensory room at the airport changes that thinking to: ‘Maybe we can take that trip after all!’”

To find Presley's Place, access Pittsburgh International Airport's map here. For inquiries, contact Pittsburgh International Airport via email at info@flypittsburgh.com or fill in the general form here to request additional services.

Pittsburgh
PITTSBURG AIRPORT
The sensory room and simulated jetway at Pittsburgh International Airport offer support to passengers with ASD.

Manchester Airport

Manchester, UK

Manchester Airport offers special services to accommodate the unique needs of travelers with ASD. Their travel companions and caregivers can pick up a lanyard at Assistance Reception points in all check-in halls to access family and priority lanes, as well as assistance lanes at the UK border on arrival.

Past security and immigration in Terminal 1, there is a designated quiet zone with dim lights called the Sunflower Room. Airport staff will guide you to this room if you have the lanyard.

Manchester Airport has also developed an airport awareness book specifically designed for caregivers of children with ASD. This downloadable guide includes a story with images of airport procedures and a worksheet that your child can use to address any concerns or worries they may have about traveling through Manchester Airport.

Peter Halliwell, project coordinator at the Autistic Society Greater Manchester Area, collaborated with the airport to create this resource: “The book explains and illustrates every detail of departing from and arriving into Manchester Airport as a passenger.” 

The book also offers additional tips for parents and caregivers, including a hassle-free route to the airport and how to prevent issues during security checks.

If you require extra assistance, you must contact Manchester Airport at least 48 hours before your journey. The best way to contact the airport is via your airline, and a full list of Manchester-based airline contacts is available here. If you are unable to book assistance, head straight to the Assistance Reception points at check-in. 

National guidance provided by Manchester City Council on travelling through Manchester Airport can be found here. For inquiries, contact Manchester Airport’s pre-travel enquiry team at emailusforconfidence@abm.com or Katy Gough, author of the airport awareness book,  katy.gough@manairport.co.uk

 

Gatwick Airport

London, UK

A recipient of the Accessible Airport Award by ACI Europe, Gatwick Airport is known for its support of travelers with ASD, including the United Kingdom’s first Sensory Room, located in the North Terminal. 

It includes a chill-out zone with bean bags, cushions, and visual wall features. The interactive area features sensory games like a sound- and color-based Catherine wheel, tactile panels, color-match panels with mood lighting and classical music, a sound-to-light show, and a waterless rainbow tube.

Advance booking is required to access the Sensory Room. Book your space online here up to 10 months ahead of your trip. If you arrive without a booking and no slots are available, inquire with staff for potential openings when other passengers leave.

Gatwick Airport advises children with ASD and their families to obtain a Hidden Disability lanyard from any Special Assistance counter before entering the room. Though the lanyard doesn't grant priority access, it signals staff to provide extra assistance and support.

For priority queues or additional services, you can book assistance through your airline or travel agent and contact the Hidden Disability team well in advance of your trip.

A visual guide for Gatwick Airport that details the whole journey from check-in to boarding can be downloaded online here. If you happen to be flying with British Airways, the airline also has a downloadable visual guide.  

Contact the Special Assistance team at Gatwick Airport via Email (hiddendisability@gatwickairport.com). The team can also be reached via Telephone (+44 (0) 1293 507500 North Terminal / +44 (0) 1293 507784 South Terminal). 

Gatwick
The Sensory Room, situated in the North Terminal of London's Gatwick Airport.

Top Tip:

If you are departing from or arriving at Hong Kong International Airport, there is a Courtesy Channel that travelers with ASD can use to expedite entry into the security and immigration zone. There are also resting lounges throughout the airport, locations available here. 

To contact HKIA staff prior to arriving at the airport, call +852 2181 8888 and the 24-hour hotline is +852 2275 0000.