With big crowds, loud noises and strange smells, airports can be overwhelming places for kids with , and autism. And once kids get on a plane, sitting still for hours can be a real challenge. But some airports and airlines are taking a small step to make travel easier: They’re creating sensory-friendly and quiet rooms.
In March, the Shannon Airport in Ireland opened the first airport sensory room in Europe. The room provides a calm area with low lights, bubble lamps and soothing sounds for kids and adults who need it. You can see the Shannon Airport sensory room in this video:
Last year, Delta Airlines opened a “calming” room in the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. And there are now simple quiet rooms at Myrtle Beach International Airport and at London Heathrow. Often created for kids with autism, these rooms are also typically available for any child who needs relief from sensory overload.
“It’s a good sign that the airlines are trying to address sensory needs,” says Understood expert Keri Wilmot. She’s an occupational therapist who works with kids with learning and thinking differences and kids with autism. “When you travel with a child who can get extremely overwhelmed or can’t sit still, airports and flying can be stressful,” she says. “A sensory room can help.”
However, Wilmot cautions that sensory and quiet rooms won’t solve all travel stress. “These rooms are only in a few airports right now,” she warns. “And many kids have difficulty with transitions. To avoid stress and potential disappointment, parents need to consider whether visiting a sensory room is worth it.”
Here are some questions Wilmot suggests asking before visiting a room:
- Does the sensory room have specific hours?
- Is there enough time to visit the room and return to the airport gate for your next flight?
- Are the toys and experiences in the room something the child will like?
- Could a visit lead to additional meltdowns or tantrums?
Sensory rooms aren’t the only way airports are trying to be friendlier to kids with special needs. Many airlines and airports now offer pre-tours of planes for kids with disabilities. This allows them to get used to being on the plane before the flight.
Some airlines may offer preferential seating on the plane, too. And the Transportation Security Administration, which runs security checks at airports, tries to accommodate kids who have anxiety about being separated from their family during screening.
“Planning is key when traveling,” Wilmot advises. “Understand what your child’s travel challenges are, then research ahead to see what’s available at the airport and through the airline.”
“Don’t overlook simple ways to help manage your child’s issues,” she adds. “You may be able to find a quiet place in an airport lounge or at a smaller gate away from noisy and overcrowded areas. Finding a safe place for the kids to run around, release some energy and enjoy a snack can make travel much more pleasant, too.”
Get more tips to help kids avoid sensory meltdowns while traveling. Explore ways to help kids cope with sensitivity to sight, sound, taste and touch. And read how theaters are expanding sensory-friendly movie showings.
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About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.