“It’s often the fear of the unknown that really stops me doing a lot of things.”
We can all relate to this when it comes to travel. We all have places we’d love to go to but something holds us back.
But in Becca’s case, being autistic means she worries about things that neurotypical people never give a second thought to.
“Where are the gates in the airport?” she worries, “How do I get around the airport? What food is at the airport? I get sensory issues with take-off and landing but the unknown is a much bigger issue.”
One airline is trying to ease some of the obstacles that people with autism, disabilities or a fear of flying face.
Practice flights let them experience plane travel without actually going anywhere.
The programme, called ‘It’s Cool to Fly American Airlines’, may sound like a bright idea.
But as an autistic writer and activist, I was curious to know how people like me really feel about it. So I started asking around.
American Airlines’ practice flights: Flying without the flight
Harrison is an autistic person who has never taken a flight. “[I’m] deterred by the lack of control and inability to escape from challenging sensory stimuli,” he says.
“Simply knowing there’s a way out when everything is too much can be enough to put me at ease.”
American Airlines’ practice flights taxi around the runway for half an hour. So at least Harrison would know he only has to stay on the plane for that long.
This can make a big difference to autistic people because they’ll feel empowered with the knowledge they need to decide whether to fly for real.
The chance to check I have everything I need to fly comfortably
The “unknown” that Becca fears could include all the steps before you actually take your seat on the plane.
For me, the unknown is contending with a busy environment full of people who often seem impatient. You get jostled about - stressful at any time but especially when I’m carrying a pile of paperwork.
Add to this the worry that security will want to pat me down - people touching me is one of my biggest sensory issues.
I then have to try and filter through the sensory stimuli of lights, announcements overhead and bright screens. Coping with this mostly relies on me packing my own aids such as ear defenders, but often these are not enough for such an overwhelming environment, and they’re also liable to be taken at security.
Taking one of these practice flights allows you to see how you respond to all of these unusual stimuli, and see if you have all the aids and comforts you need.
“Allowing a virtual walkthrough or even a physical walkthrough would really ease issues for me,” says Becca, “as I can start to memorise where the toilets are, where I can go for a meltdown, etc.”
Unexpected issues such as flight delays can be tricky for autistic people to navigate. I’m guessing these practice flights run on time, so you wouldn’t be able to practice coping with delays.
A video walkthrough of taking a flight would be great
Another issue which I empathise with is that every airline doesn’t operate exactly like American Airlines. So these flights would only really prepare you for what their processes are like.
One autistic person, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains: “Every single [airline] seems to have different boarding procedures and processes from start to finish.”
They came up with a great idea to help people know what to expect, “A video that explains the step by step from check-in to leaving customs at the other end would really help me relax.”
‘A helpful part of a larger tapestry’
Although European airlines are yet to take up similar schemes to the one offered by American Airlines, and every autistic person will require their own individual support, I feel like this programme could be one helpful part of a larger tapestry of support for anxious travellers.
Other supportive measures could be allowing autistic people onto the plane before everyone else and having a sensory room available within the airport.
I hope to see more supportive measures in the future, because everyone has the right to travel.