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Autism ASD

Travelling Through the Airport

Many individuals with autism can find travelling through the airport a very difficult and scary experience. For many individuals it represents a new experience which is difficult to understand and sometimes very frightening.

Below are a number of simple strategies that can be employed to help the individual with ASD to understand the process of getting through the airport. 

As all individuals with autism learn and experience social situations in very different ways, selecting the strategy or combination of strategies that best suit the individual travelling with you is important. Select the strategy that best fits the individual’s level of understanding. Ensure that you practice using the strategy before you go the airport. This will help you implement it with confidence in the real life situation.

Visual Guide

Visual guides are used to support individuals with autism understand social situations. It provides the individual with a short description of the situation and information about what to expect and why. A Visual Guide should include the following elements; description of the social situation/event, the possible/expected perspective of the individual (e.g. how they might feel) and direction to the individual as to how they should act within this situation.

Visual Guide - Terminal 1

Visual Guide - Terminal 2

Main parts to include when writing a Visual Guide about the airport

  1. How you are getting to the airport 
  2. Why you are going there- going on holidays/to visit a relative/moving
  3. Where to get help if needed
  4. Check-in
  5. Giving bags/suitcase/backpack at check-in (conveyor belt)
  6. Going through security and the possibility of  being stopped and searched
  7. Finding the boarding gates and piers and things you can do while you are waiting (shopping, using the internet, looking at aircraft, getting something to eat)
  8. Waiting to board the aircraft
  9. Boarding the aircraft
  10. Important to capture in the story how the airport will be experienced- for example noise, lots of people, waiting for long periods of time

Visual supports for travelling through the airport

Visual schedules representing the main parts of transitioning through the airport are often very helpful for individuals who have difficulty in understanding complex language and changes to normal routines. These supports in the form of text, pictures and/or symbols (representing the main parts of the process) help to make sense of the transition. See below for an example:

Some individuals can follow long picture schedules while other individuals find it easier to follow shorter schedules (e.g. 2-3 symbols then take a break and prepare the next part of the schedule)

For shorter schedules, put symbols to represent favourite activities/break at a point on the schedule that can be easily accessed for a short period of time. Ensure, as the individual arrives at the break points on the schedule that he/she has time to spend on a preferred activity before continuing on with further transitions. This will help break the long transition through the airport down into smaller manageable transitions for the individual.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

If the individual you are travelling with uses PECS, make sure to include symbols for the journey.
Sometimes it might be important to teach the individual some new symbols before going to the airport so that they can communicate their needs. For example help symbol if they are having difficulty with something/don’t understand or break symbol if they are finding the experience overwhelming and need to find a quiet area to take a break.


Tips - 2-3 weeks before the trip

Plan your trip a number of weeks in advance.

  • Place symbols to represent your trip on the individual’s calendar. Talk about the trip in the weeks/days leading up to the trip.
  • Picture symbols for PECS® books to help support your child with more difficult situations e.g. wait 
  • Prepare a scrapbook of pictures to represent the holiday that is being taken.
  • Holiday Scrapbook should contain pictures of the airport, airplanes and of the location the individual will be travelling to. This scrapbook can potentially help by:
  • Preparing the individual for the trip. For example, acts as a conversation focus for the individual with others prior to the trip
  • Acts as a visual support at the airport, helping the individual to keep focused while moving through the airport. Showing pictures of the airport’s services and outlets.
  • Motivate the individual to keep to the schedule and the rules that are established for moving through the airport. For example, the individual can stop at various times while travelling through the airport to look at pictures of the trip they are taking and some of the possible outings that you will be doing as a family when they arrive at the destination.
  • Prepare your child for walking through busy places- e.g holding hands, following simple directions etc.

Decide on these rules before you go on holidays. Once they have been decided upon, stick to them and be consistent. These can help the individual to understand what is acceptable and what is not while at the airport or on holiday.

Reinforce regularly by giving feedback- ‘well done, great’. Remain calm if the individual breaks a rule, simply remind them of it and redirect them to follow it.

‘Holiday Rules’

  1. I stay close to mum and dad
  2. I listen to my mum and dad
  3. I hold hands when I am asked
  4. I walk and do not run when at the airport

Symbols/text to represent rules can be downloaded, printed and laminated. These could be kept on a key ring or in the individual’s pocket. Reinforce rule following and remind the individual of the rules regularly throughout the journey (every 15-30mins; depending on your child/adolescent’s understanding).

  • Make an ID card for the individual. This can be used in the event that you become separated at the airport. The ID should include the individual’s name, how to interact with the individual and your contact details. It is also a good idea to learn the phrase for ‘my child has ASD’ in the language of the country that you will be travelling to. (Click Here to visit the IAA website and to apply for a card )
  • If your child has an assistance dog (and they are travelling with you on holidays) contact the airline to make arrangements.
  • Show visual schedules to your child and practice role plays and asking simple questions to ensure your child has an understanding of the visual guide.
  • If your child is on a special diet or is taking medication, it can be useful to have a letter from your GP to prevent difficulties at customs / passenger screening.
  • Inform your airline that you are travelling with a child/adolescent with autism so that special accommodations or arrangements can be made if required.
  • Make a trip to the airport in advance in preparation for the noise and bustle of the airport.
  • Book reduced mobility service in advance via your airline / handling agent (if you require assistance when travelling you must notify your airline / handling agent in advance & they in turn will pass the information to the Service Provider (OCS). This service helps individuals with disabilities and their families to get through the airport as easily as possible.
  • Prepare a set of strategies that you can use with the person you are travelling with if your flight is delayed.

Tips for travelling through the airport

  • Bring back-pack with items for the individual
  • Snack, (remember that you can not bring fluids through security unless they are in containers of 100ml or less, food & beverage facilities are available Airside once you pass through security)
  • Fidget toys, ipod, portable DVD player, book, magazine, favourite small toy, nintendo (remember to check what you can bring. Make sure that a favourite toy can not be mistaken for knife/gun)
  • Leave plenty of time to get through the airport especially during holiday season.
  • If you require assistance at any stage with your journey through Dublin Airport, assistance can be provided from DAA personnel (Customer Service Agents) wearing pink t-shirts.
  • OCS (Reduced Mobility Service Provider) can if needed assist you in your journey throughout the airport, they offer additional assistance with travelling through the airport from arrival at the airport right through to boarding of the aircraft. It is strongly advisable that this service is booked in advance through the airline / handling agent as there can on occasion be long delays if only requested when you arrive at the airport.
  • There are a number of internet stations that might be of interest to your child that will help break up the journey through the airport.
  • Pack sweets for airplane take-off (stop ears blocking) 
  • Ensure all visual supports are packed for trip

When at the airport

The airport is a very busy place and your child may be confused and behave in ways that are out of character.

  • Ignore people who make comments or stare if your child behaves in a way that attracts attention
  • It is important to try to remain calm. If your anxiety levels are raised it may make your child more anxious.
  • Get their attention by getting down to their eye level, use their name and get eye contact.
  • Keep directions simple and clear. State what you want them to do
  • Use pictures/sign to help support what you are saying (first___ then ___ or we are going here____ next)
  • Remember you can use disabled toilet facilities if the person you are travelling with needs to use the toilet.
  • Many individuals with ASD are noise sensitive. If the individual you are travelling with appears to be sensitive to noise, then direct the individual to an item that might help them to cope with the situation. For example some individuals like to listen to an ipod when in a noisy place. Listening to music can be relaxing but can also block out the noise of the airport.
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