Does it give you a hollow laugh when people wish you off on a relaxing holiday? Travel with a special needs child can be fraught and stressful. And airports can be guaranteed to set your holiday off on the wrong foot – with meltdown-inducing lights, noises, crowds and queues, and sometimes nowhere to change disabled children.
But with a bit of forward planning you can make the airport experience much easier.
Help at the airport is not restricted just to those with physical disabilities – if your child is unable to understand or will be traumatised by queueing and security procedures owing to autism or learning difficulties, you can be whizzed through check-in and security, and found a quiet place to wait.
We’ve asked the UK’s main airports to tell us how they can help. All advise that you pre-book assistance with your airline or tour operator 48 hours in advance.
For travel with a disabled child, the prize goes to Manchester Airport which has three Changing Places facilities, one in each terminal. Only eight other airports offer these (Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, East Midlands, George Best Belfast, Leeds Bradford, Newcastle and Stansted).
Shame on the others, where often your only option is to change children lying on the floor.
‘Installation of Changing Places is dependent on individual venues recognising that providing these facilities would make the world of difference for many families and potential customers,’ says Sophie Keenleyside, Changing Places Development Officer. ‘Although Building Regulations recommend that newly built large public buildings, such as airports, include a Changing Places toilet, it is not mandatory for any buildings to have them.’
And she warns that it’s likely to be worse at your destination – the UK has more airports with these toilets than any other country in the world, thanks to the fantastic campaigning efforts of many families, Keenleyside said.
Queue busting and quiet places for SEN children at the airport
Tell them in advance and they’ll make arrangements to quicken the queuing process. The seated area in the North Pier is your best bet for a quiet spot.
There’s a downloadable children’s guide to the airport on the website with pictures and details of procedures such as check-in and security, which you could use to create a social story to minimise anxiety (see our feature on these if you’re not sure how to do this - click here).
The Changing Places facility is in the departure lounge, behind W H Smith.
A dedicated team is at hand 24 hours per day to assist where possible from point of arrival right to the aircraft and vice versa, and to offer pre-holiday familiarisation visits. You’ll be fast tracked through the queues, and staff will close off an area to other passengers if you need a spot for an overwhelmed autistic child.
You’re advised to pre-book, but failing that you can get on-the-spot assistance from the help/call points around the airport, or the PRM (passengers with restricted mobility) assistance desk located in the main terminal building.
Advise ahead by emailing the additional needs team, and you will be fast-tracked through check-in and passport control, and they’ll find you a quiet place to wait. In the event of a known delay, the airport will let you know so you can arrive later at the airport.
Its website offers fact sheets explaining airport procedures (look under additional needs).
The airport can also arrange a familiarisation visit to the airport ahead of travel, walking your child through the full check-in procedure, and through security, where staff will show them the equipment and explain the sights and sounds they will experience.
You can have the option for the family to board the aircraft first or last.
There are quiet areas dotted around the terminal, apparently, but not that we’ve ever seen in the school holidays. The airport’s best advice is that you book into the lounges – there will be a charge, but you’ll get food and drink supplied too.
White phones on the walls and pillars can be used to summon assistance. And sitting in the assistance lounges will ensure you are given help if your flight is delayed.
There’s a separate security lane for families and vulnerable passengers, which usually means less mayhem as you go through security checks.
When you arrive in the assistance lanes, advise staff of any conditions which are going to make this difficult for your child, and they say they’ll do their best to help.
Gatwick also has security assistance lanes through border control to help families landing at home. There are Changing Places facilities in the arrivals route of both terminals.
There’s a downloadable booklet with lots of pictures, detail about airport procedures, and advice from the ADHD Foundation for pre-trip planning:
You’re stuck with the queues, but the airport says its security officers/compliance staff will assist where they can with putting you into quiet lanes. If you need to take time out, passenger ambassadors will find the best location for a quiet area depending on the time of day.
Changing Places suites are located in Terminal 5 opposite Gate 20 and 21, and in Terminal 2 on the arrivals level, airside, opposite gate 18, providing a height-adjustable changing bench, a hoist, and a shower.
Note that blue badge parking does not operate on the Heathrow road system for security reasons. There are blue badge bays in all short-stay car parks, and phones to call for assistance with wheelchairs or luggage.
Best option for a quiet spot we’re told is the Multi Faith Prayer room in the departure lounge, which has a quiet area with low lighting levels and bucket seating adjacent. The area is away from the pedestrian routes, but near to the departure gates.
The airport is currently working with the Wirral Autistic Society to train key personnel to recognise and assist passengers using the airport.
No changing tables as yet, but these are promised as part of a £100 million redevelopment starting this year. Its Special Assistance service can circumvent some of the queueing. Best bets for a quiet spot are the lounge area near to Gate 10, and the Special Assistance Waiting area in the main Departure Lounge – these are more secluded, although still public areas.
Top dog for changing facilities, with one in each terminal. It has also produced specific booklets ‘Travel advice for parents and carers of children on the Autistic Spectrum’ for each terminal, also available in video form on its website. The book describes, with accompanying photos, what you will see and hear, from arriving at the airport, going through security and through to returning back home.
You can request a wristband for your child to wear which entitles the child and all accompanying members of the party to use the fast-track security lanes in each terminal.
The airport says it doesn’t manage check in queues, so it’s up to the discretion of the ground handling agents to get you to the head of the queue. But they claim queue times are minimal. You will get fast track through security through the assistance gate, which is generally a much quieter route. You can ask to board ahead of other passengers.
The Changing Places facility is on level 1 of the terminal (landside).
What are your top tips for travelling with a special needs child?
What about destination airports? Tell us about the good and the bad.
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