Ryanair, which flies to 36 countries, last month developed a comprehensive training program for all staff, including pilots, cabin crew and support teams, to help identify the sunflower and gain a better understanding of non-visible disabilities.
In February this year, British Airways became the first UK airline to officially recognize the Sunflower Lanyard and in 2019 it also became the first to receive the Autism Friendly Award from the National Autistic Society.
A number of other airlines, including Tui and Jet2, also recognize the lanyard, which is just as good given that it’s estimated that more than two million travelers carry one.
However, airport experience and general awareness can vary widely.
Gatwick, for example, introduced lanyard training and a dedicated assistance desk back in 2016. In 2018, it became the first British airport to introduce a sensory room in its North Terminal. The space is wheelchair accessible and free to use but must be booked in advance.
There are specially trained support staff and a sensory room at Heathrow, but you must give the airline 48 hours notice if you wish to use it. Glasgow requires you to book ‘DPNA assistance’ with your flight reservation and Manchester recently partnered with the National Autistic Society to help train staff and produce a brochure. Bristol Airport also partnered with OCS Group, a facilities management firm, in 2017 to train staff on how to deal with passengers with invisible disabilities and won an award.
Globally, the Sunflower lanyard is recognized at hundreds of airports around the world, all listed on the Hidden Disabilities website. The list includes JFK, Singapore Changi, Sydney, Stockholm and Copenhagen to name a few. Most airports offer them free of charge at information points.
But just last month, a mother who boarded a plane with her autistic son at Cardiff Airport claimed that despite contacting the airport beforehand and her son wearing a lanyard, staff accused her of jumping in the queue.
Our own experiences at Birmingham and Zante airports this past summer have been overwhelmingly positive. Both my son Eddie and I wore lanyards and upon arrival we were shown to the special assistance desk in Birmingham and asked if we needed any additional assistance. I had called ahead and was informed of the sensory room, which Eddie found a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle. We flew Jet2 and Zante staff quickly spotted our lanyards and whisked us through passport control and onto the flight. It made a big difference.
When I asked some co-parents of children with non-visible disabilities about their experiences flying with a lanyard, the results were generally encouraging – but quite mixed.
Stephanie Astro, a single autistic parent of three neurodivergent teenagers, said some airports and airlines may disagree with her approach. “Stansted tried to put me in a wheelchair because I was struggling with sensory input and the ‘assistant’ wasn’t waiting for me to check everyone. I’d recommend printing out information about any supplies you’ll need, like weight or crush vests, ahead of time,” she advises.