I recently travelled to Thailand to explore the country for three weeks over the Christmas period.
Three weeks is the longest time I have been away from home and in a setting outside of my usual routine. I knew I was pushing my limits so I wanted to take every opportunity to make my trip as stress free as possible.
The airport often causes me a lot of anxiety; particularly queuing. Lots of people in one area equals a lot of noise and smells and this can be very intimidating for someone on the spectrum.
Whilst packing my hand luggage for the airport with all my necessary twiddle toys and noise cancelling headphones I remembered an article which I had read in a previous issue of ‘Your Autism Magazine’, (a magazine created by the National Autistic Society which is issued every quarter throughout the year) about London Gatwick and London Heathrow airports issuing the offer of a lanyard to those flying from their terminals. When worn this lanyard supposedly alerts their staff that the wearer has a hidden disability and may require extra patience and help.
As I was to be flying from London Gatwick I decided to give this a go in the hope it would make my experience calmer.
If you are travelling from London Heathrow you can email them up to seven days before your flight and they will dispatch a lanyard, free of charge, to your address: firstname.lastname@example.org
As I was flying from Gatwick receiving the lanyard prior to my departure date wasn’t available. Instead, a few days before my flight I emailed their support team with details of my flight, number time of departure, etc. and they responded with direct and easy to understand instructions telling me where to go to collect my lanyard: HiddenDisability@gatwickairport.com
Once arriving at the airport I followed the clear instructions and found the desk which distributed the lanyards – it is situated in a quiet area of the airport, separate from the check-in and security desks. I was nervous when asking for my lanyard. After a history of being met with, ‘you don’t seem Autistic’ when being open about my condition I prefer to struggle through situations than ask for help. Others responses often leave me feeling ashamed and embarrassed of my condition.
However, the lady on the desk simply smiled at me, handed the lanyard over and asked if I needed any further assistance getting around the airport. In my state of relief that I was not accused of ‘not seeming Autistic’ , I declined the offer of extra help and hurried away from the desk. On reflection, next time, I will definitely ask what other assistance they can provide to help those on the spectrum.
With my lanyard round my neck I went to meet my friends, (there were five of us in total) and we made our way to check our bags in and collect our boarding passes for our flight. It was a very long queue so we joined the back. Within a few seconds a staff member approached us and asked if we would like to go to the ‘priority lane’ to get checked in – a response to her noticing my lanyard. I was in shock that the lanyard was working already – I assumed it was only to get me through security faster but Gatwick had trained their staff members to go that extra mile to help those wearing a lanyard. In a society which rarely helps those on the spectrum, I can’t begin to put into words how much this meant to me and I’m sure, to others.
As we calmly checked our bags in, the lady at the check-in asked me again if there was anything the airline could do to ease my journey – in the disbelief of it all, I declined. I felt like I shouldn’t ask for any further assistance as they had already been so accommodating – I didn’t want to be a burden to them. It’s sad that I, and others on the spectrum, can often feel like a burden simply because we need that extra care. There’s a stigma around Autism, which I hope one day will be no more.
After check-in we walked over to security – the part I hate most. Upon, collecting my lanyard the staff member let me know that my friends and I could use the security to the right of the special assistance desk. I assumed this would be a separate queuing system which led you through to the main security.
No, it was in fact its own security. A mini version of the usual security area. There were no queues and the security team were friendly, giving me time to remove liquids and electrical items from my hand luggage. There was no rush and no noise; only friendly smiles. I have never had an airport experience like it and I truly cannot thank Gatwick enough for creating such a calm environment for those on the spectrum.
I entered the duty free area feeling like I was ready to tackle my flight head on. After security I usually feel like I needed to take myself off to the quietest part of the terminal I can find and remain there curled in a ball until my flight’s gate opens. But, this time I was able to eat at one of the restaurants and purchase a book to read on the flight – all without a flutter of anxiety in my chest.
When it was time to board my flight the lanyard was recognised again and I was able to be the first one to board the plane. This meant I could unpack my bag and take my seat in my own time, without the usual pushing to secure your place in the overhead lockers.
I was also pleased to see a gentleman in his 40’s boarding the plane at the same time as me, also wearing a lanyard – we exchanged a knowing nod and settled into our seats. It made me happy to know that someone else on the spectrum had benefited from the assistance offered.
My eleven hour flight was much more bearable thanks to my experience at the airport. I had to endure further flights throughout my time travelling Thailand and without the special assistance I experienced in Gatwick these one or two hour flights seemed much harder to cope with. I boarded them feeling exhausted and anxious following sensory overload which I had experienced in the airports beforehand.
I was allowed to keep hold of my lanyard so that I may use it in future airports located in the United Kingdom. I have two more holidays arranged this year and I will definitely be sporting my lanyard when entering the airports. I already feel much calmer thinking about it, knowing that I needn’t endure the noisy queues and impatient security teams which I have in the past.
It fills me with joy knowing that people on the spectrum, who haven’t been able to even consider going abroad before, may now be able to thanks to airports taking the step to accommodate us and our needs. It also gives me hope, that in time, small steps may be made by the rest of society. Perhaps quiet train carriages will be introduced or quiet hours in supermarkets extended to allow myself and others on the spectrum to experience life in a positive way and to be given the opportunities which at the moment often pass us by.
To see if your ‘local’ airport offers services such as this simply google the airports name followed by the word Autism – ‘Manchester Airport Autism’ – the results should lead you to the necessary web pages and information.
Going abroad for the first time? Contact the National Autistic Society for tips and advice:
**I also want to note that throughout all the stages, from priority boarding to special assistance security, Gatwick’s staff allowed my five friends to come along with me – we were never separated. If you let the team know who you are travelling with your family and friends can go through the same boarding and security process which you do.