Airports can be exciting places at the start of a holiday or for those interested in travel. But they can give rise to extreme situations that you wouldn't get in day-to-life, causing anxiety for some autistic people. Everyone is different - but here is what I struggle with.


Based on the airline and airport, this might be quick and easy or might be a longer wait based on destination. For example, some destinations do not allow online check-in due to visa and document checks. Some airlines will complete the process and put baggage tags on and help you through the process and some require you to do this yourself.

Queues for check-in can often be long and very close together; combined with the bright, noisy setting, this can make people ill with panic, especially if they’re already apprehensive.


This is by far the hardest stage. Staff can appear rude, barking orders at you to empty your cases into a small tray, with all sorts of rules about what can and can’t be taken through security. For autistic people being separated from comfort items can cause panic and distress. Then having to go through a metal detector or a small body scanner can be daunting, especially if family members are pulled away for extra screening. 

Staff can be suspicious of autistic people’s behaviour because of stimming or not making eye contact. If it is the autistic person pulled aside, being touched in public by a stranger can not only cause physical pain but emotional distress, often while separated from family members. This can cause sensory overload and lead to meltdowns.

People might say if you have nothing to hide there is nothing to worry about. But people don’t worry about having nothing to hide. It’s the fear of what will be done to them and their travelling companions whom they are often separated from.

Departure lounge

In UK airports this requires going through a duty free shop with very bright lights, loud music, lots of noise and strong smells. If you are already stressed from the previous processes, this is probably the worst thing that could follow. 

The gate

Sometimes seats that were pre-booked will be reallocated at the last minute. This then requires pushing through herds of people to board the flight.

On flights to the USA, randomly selected passengers get screened again at the gate, often with a full body pat down and whole bags emptied and swabbed for explosives. I feel that this is a step too far – why do they do it? Either they don’t trust the security they have already done, or if they do, then what is the point of these extra searches?

This often means being separated from companions and puts vulnerable people at risk if they do not know exactly what is being asked of them or do not answer appropriately. Often on flights to the USA, people can be asked security questions using behaviour profiling and social cues which autistic people can miss. For example, they ask questions about things autistic people may not have an easy answer to such as hobbies or social situations or where do you work.

On the plane

This can be noisy with other passengers often unaware of their own smells or sounds, often made worse by the small space and pressurised air. This causes hours of sensory overload.

Even interacting with cabin crew to get drinks and meals can be difficult and often requires help. Most airlines now only offer wooden cutlery instead of plastic, which can cause sensory overload and can be difficult to use for those with secondary needs such as dyspraxia.


Deplaning via an airbridge is not too bad as passengers can spread out but buses are torture as there is no room to breathe with so many people packed on board.

At UK airports, most passengers are expected to use e-gates which require a self-scan of the passport. If your travelling companions are first to get through, stopping to wait is forbidden and staff will shout orders to move, causing separation and anxiety. If the e-gates don’t work and your travelling companions are already through, they would not be allowed back to assist. Then the autistic person would be forced to go alone. 

Next is baggage claim which can take a long time full of lots of people cramped together around a small carousel pushing and shoving people out of the way and standing inches apart. If you’re connecting to another flight, you then have to go through all the security processes again, doubling the anxiety, especially if the first experience was a bad one. 

Passenger assistance

While all this can be a nightmare, people still need to be able to travel. The sunflower lanyard system was introduced to try and make staff at airports aware of people with hidden disabilities. However, the lanyards cover a range of disabilities and do not specify what the needs are of the person, which still requires the embarrassment of having to explain at every single turn.

At airports the lanyard can have very different meanings. Some airports allow people wearing these lanyards to use the fast track queues, However some do not, and this means still waiting for hours and this is only used as a means of identifying those with additional needs rather than helping them.

From personal experience, some airports still think of disability as requiring a wheelchair. I have been told that the only way to access special assistance is to be pushed in a wheelchair through the airport, which is not only unacceptable and backwards thinking but would further take a wheelchair from those who actually need it and cause that person to have to wait longer. 

Other passengers can also be very judgemental, saying you’re not in a wheelchair so shouldn’t be in the fast track/special assistance line. 

Some airports are trying to make things better by introducing quiet spaces and training staff. In some American airports, from personal experience, it can be arranged for a staff member to meet you on arrival and escort you to the front of immigration queues and customs to get out the airport quickly, and on return to speak to the security agents ahead of the process and allow a separate private line.

Meanwhile some airports do not even have any assistance available or advertised. A big problem can be lack of consistency or the lack of any support.

Airports must understand all customers have different needs and provide ways to help them. It’s also important for these airports to advertise clearly the services that they offer rather than people having to contact them to see what can be offered, as many people wouldn’t do this.

It’s also important to make sure these services are not offered only via the phone as some people can’t speak on the phone to explain their needs and would need a text-based service to do this such as email. 

Staff need to understand the immense pressure people are already under when flying and how easily the smallest thing can trigger a major reaction and understand the difference between a meltdown and a real threat. 

Airlines also need to ensure their cabin crew are aware of the needs of passengers on board who require special assistance. Sometimes even walking through a plane full of passengers to go to the toilet alone can be daunting and sometimes you need to have certain seats on the plane. Some airlines offer free seat selection to passengers with special needs and therefore it’s on their system every time a booking is made to avoid having to explain the same things over and over again.