Flying can be an overwhelming experience for anyone, but it’s especially stressful for kids with autism and/or sensory processing disorder (SPD), who often struggle with large crowds and loud noises. The long and sometimes arduous process of standing on long lines, having their bags checked, and going through security can be particularly invasive and terrifying for some kids. And then there’s the waiting.
But for kids flying out of Shannon, Ireland, the airport no longer has to be such a scary or intimidating place. Recently, Shannon Airport opened the first airport sensory room in Europe for passengers with autism — and parents everywhere have been rejoicing ever since.
“Coming to an airport with families who have children with special needs, it can be a very stressful and daunting time,” said Gearoid Mannion of Ennis Voices for Autism, in a video shared by the airport. “… and being able to come here away from all of that really means a lot to all the families who will use this facility from now on … [but] what we really need is, we need other airports across Europe to do the same thing.”
Andrew Murphy, Managing Director of Shannon Airport, shared that the sensory room inspires “a great sense of community,” while parents have expressed that the room is a “real tangible benefit to them on their travels with their children.”
With its dim lighting, comfy cushions, and calming visuals, the sensory room serves as a safe haven for kids until they are ready to board their flight. According to Shannon Airport, the room itself was designed by Adam & Friends, and is “tailored to be a soothing place away from the activity of a busy airport.” It has an aquatic bubble tube, an undulated wavy wall, color changing LED lights, a wheel projector and other fun activities.
As unique as all that sounds, airport sensory rooms aren’t actually a brand new concept. In fact, just last year, Delta Airlines partnered with an autism advocacy group to create Atlanta Airport’s first multi-sensory room for individuals with autism. But they are certainly rare.
Having 11-year-old son with autism myself, I’ve seen firsthand how difficult flying has been for him. He has severe sensitivity to sounds and wears headphones at all times when out in public. But when going through airport security, he is required to take them off — which means navigating security is requires some coordination between me and my husband. One of us will go first and wait on the other side for Norrin. Once he’s through, the other can pass.
This is all to ensure Norrin doesn’t try to run away or become too distracted by the machines (which he loves). But it’s also caused airport security to become impatient with us and our son. They often don’t understand why my son is wearing headphones or why it’s such a big when they’re removed; and I’ve stopped trying to explain.
Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of stories about children with autism and their families being misunderstood at airports. Some have even been kicked off flights, if you can believe it — like Donna Beegle and her daughter Juliette, who were asked to leave a United Airlines flight back in 2015, after requesting a hot meal. (Juliette, who has trouble communicating, will only eat hot meals, so her mother requested that her sandwich be warmed. A disagreement arose after the flight attendant allegedly refused.)
But with more and more airports creating safe spaces for kids with autism, I’m honestly filled with hope that change really is happening (albeit slowly). And while I understand that sensory rooms may not be feasible for all airports, I do hope it inspires more training and understanding for special needs families in general.
Shannon’s new sensory room sure opens at the perfect time, too: April is, after all, Autism Awareness Month, and I wholeheartedly believe that with awareness comes acceptance. Providing opportunities and creating environments where everyone can feel accommodated and understood is what autism acceptance truly looks like — and I’m so happy to finally be seeing it.