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How are Barriers to Travel addressed for Tourists with Autism in Airports?

How are Barriers to Travel addressed for Tourists with Autism in Airports?
Author: Alice Clewes
1 Commentries

This paper discusses Autism and the barriers it creates in travel, with the issues which are created by difficulties in communication and many other symptoms which can be mistaken for poor behaviour. The research found that although there are currently a lot of schemes available for families, there is not much public presence as it is largely through the academic network, leading to a limitation in the positive effect of the schemes.


Autism Spectrum Disorder, Communications, Barriers, Limitations.


Tourism is an astounding method of improving a person’s quality of life, and with the population of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) sufferers globally experiencing barriers to travel, the question stands, why hasn’t anything been done sooner? Autism is a disorder suffered by many, usually presenting during childhood, with an unknown cause. There are many symptoms, including difficulties with communication, sensitivities to many triggers such as sound, repetitive behaviours and obsessive behaviours. Due to the differential nature of ASD, it is common to find the public are unknowing of how to approach a child with Autism. This lack of knowledge can create difficulties for the families and lead to the avoidance of such situations.

All studies in tourism point to the benefits for the traveller; most include new experiences, cultures, relationships and quality of life. However, a child with ASD may not get to experience this due to difficulties they face accessing transport. There are options to drive or to access trains, but through research it has been highlighted that there is a distinct issue with air travel.

When travelling through an airport you must interact with many different people, while also following many strict rules for security, such as removing shoes and belts. A child who has difficulties communicating may struggle navigating security, or boarding a plane when there is an excess of noise. If any of the steps throughout the process were to trigger the child they may scream or cry, and in some cases, increase their repetitive behaviours. Any of these behaviours viewed in the eyes of someone who does not understand ASD and the symptoms may assume this is an unruly child or bad parenting.

The first case study presented highlighted the barriers faced by a child with ASD, in an environment in which no one had been educated in ASD. A woman on a plane with her 3-year-old son were escorted off due to complains by a fellow passenger; the experience had gotten too much for the child and his mother did not know how to calm him. The staff had a lack of understanding for the family, and instead demanded them off the flight which had already left for the runway.

In the further two case studies, both reflect on two airports which have introduced schemes which can aid in transitioning a child with ASD through an airport and onto the flight. Firstly, the TSA Care program which is run at many airports with focus on Atlanta Airport. They offer a guideline of 8 steps, for which you follow the TSA Care program, run by Transport Safety Administration Officers. Secondly, Southwest Airlines offer a guideline on what tasks their staff will and will not do for your family if you have a child with ASD. This is very useful, as the family can plan around what is offered, for example: the TSA Care, meeting flight crew, assistance to gates etc.

The suggestions put forward were found via an article referenced throughout, in which they had presented their own list of suggestions for a family/parent wishing to take their child travelling. Almost an “if they are not being educated, educate yourself” approach, for if they find themselves in a situation like that in case study 1. It was originally planned for there to be suggestions for the industry, but it has become clear that it is easier to educate those more directly affected than the greater public.

The research on ASD and the barriers have shown the complexity of the disorder and the uncontrollable nature of the symptoms which can present. It is up to the understanding of the staff involved in tourism as to whether a child with ASD can feel like they can participate.
It is concluded that there is a mass of information out there for families or companies who need help interacting with children who have ASD. However, it is also established that there are limitations, as a substantial portion of it lays in academic literature. For it to be more beneficial, there should be wider access to: information surrounding schemes, how to handle a child with ASD, and how airports are responding. The positive work of the programmes and knowledge behind them needs to be made more publicly known.


Bentley, R. (2011) Special journey: Emory University, Hartsfield-Jackson airport and AirTran Airways spend a day helping young adults with autism navigate the stress of air travel, The Atlanta Journal-Constituation (Atlanta, GA). Unknown. [accessed 25 April 2017].

Hamed, H, M. (2013) Tourism and Autism: An Initiative Study for how Travel Companies can Plan Tourism Trips for Autistic People, American Journal of Tourism Management. 2 (1) 1-14. [accessed 28 March 2017].

Swarns, R, L. (2012) Testing autism and air travel. The New York Times, 26 October. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/travel/testing-autism-and-air-travel.html [accessed 27 April 2016].
Airport Barriers for ASD Travellers
Author: Lexie-Rose Homer
While browsing several papers, this one captured my attention with an interesting topic and research, additionally it further encapsulated my interest because of its assessment of accessible tourism and the prohibition it can have on disabled people, which is a personal fascination. Many individuals with autism, as well as their carers and family members have a barrier to travel because it can cause changes and disruptions to routines which travel requires for people with ASD. However, there are many articles, booklets and information available to the public to help with such difficulties and to further promote travel to individuals suffering with ASD. Such information can be seen by Autism Speaks (2017), who offer several resources to aid in the travel for people suffering from ASD. Additionally, they also provide a service which aids you in creating an itinerary and booking of flights and hotels etc to aid the journey.

However, while such information may help families and carers of people with ASD to go on holiday, further research shows the difficulty that many people face when going through airports. According to a study conducted by Airport Parking Shop (2015), over 80% of parents with children who have ASD found that the airport experience is something particularly daunting. Queuing, security, crowds and more can all add to an overwhelming experience for anybody who suffers from ASD. However, some airports are beginning to alleviate the situation, with many airports across the UK implementing strategies to help travellers with ASD. For example, Manchester Airport is leading the operation through the production of booklets on each terminal, videos that take you through the process, in addition to wristbands to fast track you through security to avoid long queues. All these factors could help people with ASD to travel.

This paper should be commended in providing a useful insight into the experiences of those with ASD and the barriers they experience within airports. By the provision of case studies, it provides a better understanding and further education about ASD travellers and their experiences, in addition to highlighting their needs in airports. To further develop the study at hand, some primary research into the first-hand accounts of travellers with ASD would provide further validation into the experiences found through secondary studies, as well as the possible development of new information to be gathered.

Autism Speaks (2017) Traveling Tips for Individuals with Autism and Their Families. New York: Autism Speaks. Available from https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/community-connections/traveling-tips-individuals-autism-and-their-families [accessed 16 May 2017].
Fowler, A. (2015) UK airports need to step up their assistance for those with autism. Airport Parking Shop. Available from https://www.airport-parking-shop.co.uk/blog/uk-airports-need-step-assistance-autism/ [accessed 16 May 2017].
Malafronte, T. (2012) Wings for Autism: An Important Role Airports Can Fulfill. Airport Magazine, December. Available from http://www.airportmagazine-digital.com/airportmagazine/20121201?pg=NaN#pgNaN [accessed 16 May 2017].