PHOTO: A growing number of airports are offering quiet rooms, multi-sensory rooms and dry runs for passengers with autism. (Photo via Flickr/Becky Wetherington)
Late last month, Ireland’s Shannon Airport became the first airport in Europe to offer a multi-sensory room for passengers with “neurodevelopmental challenges” such as autism. The room, located near the airport’s departure lounge, includes such calming features as an aquatic bubble tube, an undulated wavy wall, color changing LED’s and a wheel projector.
“I’m both delighted and proud that an Irish airport, Shannon Airport, is the first to introduce a sensory room in Europe,” said Niall Maloney, Director of Operations the airport during the opening ceremony. “It’s in keeping with Shannon’s special reputation for looking after its passengers. The introduction last year of its hats and wristbands program and the addition this year of the sensory room is our way of showing our support for our customers with autism and special needs.”
During the inauguration of the new room, Maloney urged other airports around Ireland and the world to get active about accommodating passengers with autism.
“It’s one thing for Shannon to put these provisions in place but if all other airports participated in this program so that when the passenger arrives on the other side, they also get special treatment, then that would be a huge gift to people with special needs and their families,” he said.
In fact, Maloney is echoing a sentiment that was formally set forth by Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) late last year, when it issued new guidelines encouraging U.K. airports to provide better support for passengers with “hidden disabilities” such as autism and Alzheimer’s. Among the CAA’s recommendations were creating quiet rooms or zones and offering more training for airport employees. The brief also recommended providing the option for affected passengers to wear lanyards or wrist bracelets, similar to the program introduced at Shannon Airport last year, so they could easily be identified by staff.
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As the Shannon Airport paves a number of firsts with respect to special needs passengers, it joins a number of airports on both sides of the Atlantic that are seeking alternatives for passengers traveling with autism.
The Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia, Canada also has a program in place to help staff and crew identify passengers with autism, who receive a special sticker on their boarding pass.
And Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport opened a multi-sensory room last year in partnership with Delta Air Lines. Located on Atlanta’s F Concourse, the new room features a mini ball pit, bubbling water sculpture, a tactile activity panel and other activities designed to help calm children before or after a flight.
READ MORE: Delta and Atlanta Airport Team Up to Open Calming Room for Autistic Fliers
Several airports are also introducing “quiet rooms” with limited sensory distractions for passengers. Heathrow introduced such a room in 2013, although the facility is intended for any family who needs a quick respite from airport hubbub and not just for families traveling with autistic children. In the United States, Myrtle Beach International Airport introduced a similar concept last August in the airport’s baggage claim area.
A growing number of North American airports, including ones in Fresno, Atlanta, and Houston are also participating in annual dry run programs, so kids with autism can get acclimated to the travel process. Developed in partnership with autism advocacy group The Arc, the “Wings for Autism” program not only helps alleviate fears of the families of passengers with autism, but it also helps educate TSA officials on how to interact with special needs passengers.
In 2016, the CDC released a study that estimates that one in 68 school-age children in North America is affected with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The condition is far more prevalent in boys, affecting one in 42.