Back in April 2017—just in time for Autism Awareness Month—Europe got its first sensory room for globetrotting kids with special needs. At Ireland’s Shannon Airport, travellers with sensory sensitivities – and their caregivers—can now wait to board in the soothing Sensory Room. Inside the lights are low and the music has a spa vibe. Kids can mellow out, explore and play in this space with its colour-changing LEDs and undulating wavy wall. They can relax and watch cloud and solar system projections or the illuminated bubbles and toy fish in the aquatic tube.
With their fluorescent lighting, stressed-out crowds, and non-stop announcements, airports are usually overwhelming for kids with autism. Parents often hesitate to book vacations far from home, just to avoid airport stress. Designated calm spaces in these busy hubs can make air travel that bit less daunting for all. While Canadian airports sadly still have no sensory rooms like the new one in Shannon, a couple of US airports are leading the way in North America:
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport have created a calming space for kids with autism and sensory sensitivities in their Multi-Sensory Room. Provided by Delta Airlines, it’s painted soothing blue, with fluffy white clouds. Inside the comforting space—designed in collaboration with advocacy group The Arc—there’s a ball pit and a bubbling water sculpture, as well as giant beanbags for lounging and tactile toys that kids with sensory sensitivities love to play with.
And at Myrtle Beach Airport, kids with autism can relax and wait for their flights in the Quiet Room near the baggage check. Created in partnership with Champion Autism Network, the serene space has cozy cubicles with cushions, where children with sensory sensitivities can relax away from the airport buzz, with their caregivers.
In the summer of 2019, Pittsburgh International Airport unveiled its new sensory-friendly area called Presley’s Place that features a replica plane cabin and jetway that functions like an actual airplane, to help prepare kids and parents to fly. The suite inside has a calming transition foyer, a family room, and rooms with bubble tubes—all of which are soundproofed—where families can relax before taking flight.
While we dream of seeing sensory rooms in Canada—make that in airports all over the world—we’re still excited by some recent airport initiatives here geared towards kids with autism.
More Canadian airports are now offering airport rehearsals, where children with autism and some other special needs can visit their nearest airport to get to know the unfamiliar space and processes of flying. After receiving mock tickets, these kids and their families have the chance to go through check-in and security, meet pilots, and ask as many questions as they like. They’ll even board a plane and prepare for take off.
At Montreal-Trudeau Airport eligible families can do their airport dry run with the Premium Kids Program on airport-process familiarization day. At Calgary International Airport, they can sign up for the YYC Navigators Program, and at Vancouver International Airport, they can register for the I CAN Fly with YVR program.
And if parents want to start preparing their kids for air travel from home, they can also download the social story recently created by Canucks Autism Network and Vancouver International Airport. It covers the whole flight process from printing boarding passes to passing through customs to waiting at the baggage carousel. These partners have also also put together the I CAN Fly with YVR YouTube video series. It features 10 short videos to walk kids through each step of flying. So grab the remote, fasten your seatbelts and get ready for take off!