This post, about flying – by that I mean air travel, not wishing we could fly, is one that I have been putting off in my very long list of things to write about since a disastrous trip to Italy in July. Consequently, I’m not sure how this post is going to go, as it’s still a bit of a trigger for me. But here goes…

It’s not the actual flying that is a problem for me, though it’s a problem for my husband and many people out there, of all neurotypes, despite it apparently being the safest form of travel (except for the planet, of course). My problem is with the process that comes before and after the flight, particularly before.

This is clearly a common phenomenon for us neurodivergents, as many airports now offer a facility for disabled people, autistic people, people with anxiety, anyone at all who has a condition/neurotype/disability that makes the airport experience traumatic for them.

So here are some tips:

  • Contact the airport SPECIAL ASSISTANCE team. You don’t need any proof of your condition/disability at all. You simply need to pre-book your need to use their system – it’s all done by telephone via your travel agent or airline directly – there will be a telephone number when you receive your booking. ADHD and autism are both classed as hidden disabilities and you do qualify. You’re not an imposter.
  • Here is some general information on Gatwick Airport’s Special Assistance provision. They are the first airport in the UK to provide a sensory room for people with autism, learning disabilities, or anyone who would benefit. Pre-booking is recommended but you can still ask on the day – there may be space.
  • Every airport varies in their provision but it’s becoming increasingly understood that air travel is incredibly stress-inducing for a lot of us, so provision is improving all the time.
  • If you are comfortable wearing a lanyard that states that you have an invisible disability/autism etc, this will certainly help. It’s not an access all areas pass, but it saves a LOT of talking, when you probably have a lack of energy.
  • I can’t speak for other airports, but at Gatwick they have specific check-in points for people who have pre-booked Special Assistance. This means no queuing to get checked in. If you want to check in your own baggage there is a dedicated person there to help you do it at a separate booth to everyone else. They will give you a sunflower lanyard on request.
  • If you feel you are having a particularly bad day, and Gatwick advises that when you book, you assume that you will be having your worst day, you can call on one of their phones for an assistant to accompany you through the entire process.
  • When you’ve checked in your baggage the next battle is Security Check – the bit where we take all of our possessions, put them in tiny bags if they contain anything remotely qualifying as a liquid, put all things with batteries in the tray and walk through the thing that will, in all likelihood beep at us. We, under Special Assistance have our own section for that too. Sadly, at Gatwick, we share that section with anyone who has young children and pushchairs – not an ideal combination unless you have neurodivergent children too. I found this really stressful, because of the noise. But still better than joining the endless queues with everyone else as the staff there are pre-prepped to understand things like our slower processing, the fact that we’ll probably be slower emptying all our stuff into the trays. That we’ll probably forget to put things in the trays, that we don’t like being touched if you bleep when you go through the detector thing. They are really kind at Gatwick, Special Assistance and really patient and friendly. The same can’t be said for neurotypical passengers – we actually had verbal abuse hurled at us by people who were being made to wait until we had gone through the system first. That was horrible. People can be vile.
  • The problems really begin once you’re through the whole business of the Security Check. Here you are on your own. It’s swarming with people, it’s chaos. If you don’t want to indulge in the Duty Free (aka no cheaper than anywhere else) shops, you will see a sign for Dedicated Assistance Seating (this is Gatwick specific. I can’t vouch for other airports). This gives you somewhere quieter to sit. Nobody told us this, of course, so we went through hell.
  • Anyone who has booked Special Assistance has the right to board the plane first. This is really helpful and made a big difference to us. Sadly, they combine us with all those people who have paid for early boarding if they have a pull along suitcase. So that’s not ideal. I feel like we should go on before them, as the whole point is to avoid swarms of people. It’s still better than nothing.
  • On return to the UK, again you can go to a fast check-in at the airport abroad, with no queueing and you are expedited through Security. This is an imperfect system that needs improving.
  • On arrival at Gatwick, if you’re wearing your lanyard, you will be directed to an embarrassingly fast passport control process – literally no queues at all, and very very friendly staff.

The problems really escalate when you’re at the other end – in another country. Yes, check-in was excellent, because that was controlled by the airline. But the behaviour of staff on the ground was appalling. I have IBS and I was refused entry to the toilet by a cleaner, despite me being in tears and holding up my lanyard (which was written in their own language). She shooed me away. I’ve never had any response to my complaint about that, and it sent me into total meltdown.

A member of my family had a meltdown during the early boarding process because of the really loud sound of pull along suitcases overhead on the metal stairs. The answer that the staff came up with was to put us out on the tarmac, with all of the planes! Side note: other travellers tutted, shook their heads and looked disgusted as we walked past them, because my family member is an adult, an adult sitting curled in a ball in the corner of a long narrow corridor full of noise. They showed no compassion at all. They were simply angry that we seemed to be skipping the queue.

In both directions it seems that the flight crew are in no way aware of our need for Special Assistance. They still interrupt you when you’re sleeping to ask if you’d like to buy gin or overpriced tiny toasties. I would strongly recommend doing what I did and my family member did:

  • Put ear plugs (I use Loops) in – ones that totally deaden sound.
  • Put an eye mask on.
  • Put noise cancelling headphones on, even if not listening to anything. It sends the message that you don’t want to be engaged with.
  • Have a snuggly neck support around your neck.

The other thing that didn’t work for us, despite having pre-booked Special Assistance, is that when our flight was cancelled at midnight, we were given no support at all. We ended up spending £200 to drive to another town to stay in an overpriced hotel because everything else was booked. This was because we booked our flights through a third party, instead of directly through the airline. If we’d gone through the airline, they’d have booked a hotel for us and booked us on to the next flight. We were £1000s worse off as a result of that. We need predictability, if your flight is a little more expensive but with the guarantee of a hotel in the event of flight cancellation, I highly recommend booking that one. That added a whole other level of stress and financial strain on to the experience.

In summary, it’s a mixed bag. It’s getting better but it has a long way to go. Do your research, don’t go for the closest airport, go for the airport with the best Special Assistance provision. Walk the process through in your mind – the more information you have before the event, the better prepared you’ll be. This experience really caught me out and I wasn’t prepared for it at all.

Phew. Post over. Horrible. I hope it is of some use.

[Side note: I complained to Gatwick Airport about our experience and they offered to send me some high street vouchers. When I explained that I don’t feel comfortable doing high street shopping, they sent £80 to my bank account instead. They ARE trying, at least].