Stedford adds that PIT’s security officers were recently trained to discern neurodivergent behaviours from security risks. “I’ve been working with a local university to develop training modules to train our entire team on how to recognise and approach someone with different needs,” she says.
Such needs can include stimming—or repetitive, self-stimulating behaviour—such as hand flapping, tapping or rocking, clearing the throat, and various other movements or vocalizations. Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez, an autistic occupational therapist, says that all staff should be trained to identify this behaviour as a sign of sensory overload.
“Sensory overload happens when the brain is processing too much sensory information at one time,” says Selvaggi Hernandez, which can lead to cardiac incidents, stroke, self-injurious behaviour, and other physical and mental health concerns if prolonged. She notes that stimming should be treated as a method of communication and attempts should not be made to stop it. Effectively training airport security personnel to understand how this behavior might point to a person’s needs is an important step toward de-escalating potentially traumatic events. Active listening and clear communication when requesting compliance can greatly reduce distress some neurodivergent travellers might feel.
Travel tips to consider
Neurodiversity training with travel staff promotes better care and understanding, but efforts should not end there. Selvaggi Henandez says creating new policies would help remove unnecessary barriers. “Sensory needs are real, neurological needs,” she says. “I see an opportunity for vast improvement in moving [toward] a support model.”
From ticketing challenges and confusing mobile airline apps to baggage check-in and security checks, navigating airports can present overwhelming and time-consuming challenges for neurodivergent travellers. Unexpected events, such as flight delays and overbooking, create additional disruptions. When other passengers become tense during these frustrating situations, it can add another layer of dysregulation for neurodivergent people who are often highly sensitive to other people’s emotions.
Before taking a trip, contact customer service teams at your chosen airline and destination with questions or requests that might improve your experience. Consider reviewing and printing relevant photos and instructions, roleplaying interactions, and developing or practicing social scripts to familiarise yourself with typical transit encounters.
People who have processing differences or get overwhelmed by the noise and action of transportation hubs can bring notecards to communicate their support needs. Another option is to print frequently used questions and responses if verbal interactions are difficult.
Although airport stressors can be overstimulating, exciting events or positive surprises can cause dysregulation too—and travellers should plan for how their bodies will respond to these experiences, says Selvaggi Hernandez. She recommends packing a scarf that can support a variety of needs: to create privacy, block smells or light, support temperature control, and provide gentle pressure when needed.
Selvaggi Henandez adds companies attempting to accommodate neurodivergent people should remember that even though autistic people share a general diagnosis, each person’s individual needs will vary. A recent National Geographic article on how national parks can be more autism-friendly generated lots of reader feedback, including from Lisa Kaufman, who writes, “I envision an access concierge,” she says. “They might be a jack of all trades, understanding a variety of situations that might benefit from a personalised approach.”
Stedford says that Pittsburgh’s airport relies on the input of an accessibility advisory group and consults universal design experts who encourage the company to surpass the standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Making things better for people who have additional needs makes things better for everyone,” she says.