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Travel With Kids With Special Needs & Flying with Hidden Disabilities

This post contains useful travel information and tips on travel with kids with special needs, particularly flying and passing through the airport. Flying with hidden disabilities has been made considerably easier over teh years, with countries taking a more uniform approach. However, facilities can vary as does permission to access Fast Track – it is not automatically granted even with the Sunflower Lanyard.

Yellow Sunflower Lanyard for Flying with Hidden Disabilities

The yellow sunflower lanyard or sunflower sticker is a widely accepted international sign for hidden disabilities. You can contact the airport about them before you travel and pick one up for free there. Alternatively, you can purchase the official ones from the Hidden Disabilities sites in UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, or can purchase similar from Amazon (affiliate link). Below is a list of international airports which currently recognise the sunflower for hidden disabilities.

airport sunflower for hidden disabilities
Look out for the sunflower representing hidden disabilities when at the airport.

List of Sunflower Airports

Australia

Adelaide
Brisbane 
Hobart

Melbourne: If you are travelling through our airport in the future and require additional support, you may contact us to request a Hidden Disability lanyard which will identify you to our staff. To request a lanyard as part of the Program please contact us here.
Sydney: If you would like to identify your hidden disability, you can pick up a hidden disabilities lanyard at the Airport Services Centre located on Level 3 (Administration) at T1 International terminal or from the office opposite Gate 55 on the Departures level at T2 Domestic terminal.

Canada 

Toronto: Passengers can pick up a Sunflower Lanyard at information desks in Terminals 1 and 3 and at the Lost and Found area in Terminal 1 at Pearson airport.
Vancouver Island*

Carribean

Curacao

Cyprus

Larnaca*
Paphos*

Denmark

Aalborg               
Aarhus 
Billund 
Bornholm
Copenhagen      
Esbjerg

Iceland

Keflavik*

Ireland

Cork     
City of Derry      
Donegal 
Knock             

Italy

Bologna
Naples
Trieste 

Lithuania

Vilnius

New Zealand

Wellington

Poland

Krakow

Turkey

Istanbul

The Netherlands

Maastricht Aachen Airport
Groningen Airport Eelde
Rotterdam the Hague Airport
Schiphol

UAE

Dubai

UK

  • Aberdeen
  • Belfast: The Hidden Disability Lanyards can be collected from the OCS Special Assistance Desk. With the lanyard, you can approach security using the left hand Priority Security lane. Security staff at the boarding pass scanners will then direct you into a Special Assistance Lane from that point. Please note that the lanyard does not permit fast track through Security or Passport Control but is designed to assist you through the process as smoothly as possible.
  • Birmingham
    Bournemouth
    Bristol
    Cardiff
    East Midlands: To obtain a lanyard, you can pick one up from the Pink Passenger Services Desk in the check- in hall (map), this is a free of charge service. We confirm there is nothing on the end of the lanyard, you may choose to place something on the end if you wish. Please note that the lanyards do not automatically grant access to any additional assistance and do not provide access to express check in, security or boarding. Assistance must be pre-booked with the airline at least 48 hours prior to flight, we cannot take any direct bookings. 
  • Edinburgh
    Exeter
    Gatwick: Please note that the lanyard does not offer fast track or queue jump during your airport journey, but staff will be mindful and if you are wearing a lanyard they will do what they can to support you. To pick up a lanyard at Gatwick, please go to one of our assistance reception areas. We will be happy to give you a lanyard, even if you don’t require special assistance.
  • Glasgow
  • Guernsey
  • Isle of Man
  • Jersey
  • Heathrow: For a hidden disability such as autism, dementia or anxiety, help is always at hand at the airport. If you would like to book assistance just let your airline know 48 hours in advance and our specially-trained staff will take care of you. You can pick up a lanyard from all terminals Assistance desks at Heathrow which are before security. Terminal 2: Level 5, check in hall, behind check in Zone C, Terminal 3: Level 1, opposite Pret a Manger, Terminal 4: Level 3, check in hall, opposite Zone B, Terminal 5: Level3, check in hall, Zone G
  • Highlands and Islands
  • Inverness           
  • Leeds Bradford 
  • London City       
  • Luton: Lanyards are available, for free, at our Special Assistance desk which is signposted on a yellow background from the entrance to the terminal building; you don’t have to be using the special assistance service to obtain a lanyard and are free to travel through the airport unescorted. By using a lanyard it will help our teams recognise and assist you at every stage, it also allows you and your immediate family to use the Fast Track Security free of charge.
  • Manchester: To pick up a lanyard at Manchester, please go to one of our Assistance Reception areas. These are available within our Check-in halls in Terminal 1 A and B, Terminal 2 and Terminal 3. We will be happy to give you a lanyard, even if you haven’t requested or need special assistance. The Sunflower Room in Terminal 1 is to aid Special Assistance Guests who need to break away from the noise, bright lights and crowds of the main Departure Lounge to help them relax and feel calm in a quieter environment. Guests who require use of the room will be guided here as part of the Special Assistance Service.
  • Newcastle: The Lanyards are available free of charge from the Airport Duty Managers desk or from the Passenger Assistance desk on the main terminal concourse.          
  • Norwich             
  • Southampton   
  • Stansted: You do not need to have booked Special Assistance to request a lanyard. You can pick one up either at the Information Desk in the International Arrivals area of the terminal, or at the Assistance reception in zone A. Alternatively, you can use your Sunflower lanyard obtained from one of the UK airports in the scheme. Please note that due to high demand we can’t post these out ahead of travel. Sunflower lanyards do not automatically grant access to the security FastTrack lane, however if you feel you would benefit from using the dedicated Assistance lane please speak to a member of staff at security. Special Flyer Wristband – Autism Awareness Scheme – We understand how challenging travelling can be for children on the Autistic Spectrum and have created our dedicated Special Flyer Autism Awareness Scheme for these passengers. The wristband entitles the person needing special assistance, plus up to three members of their immediate family, access to the FastTrack lanes free of charge. This is to try and minimise any waiting and queueing times going through security and passport control as these areas can get very busy.             
  • Stornaway

USA

Columbus
JFK Terminal 4: Passengers may request free sunflower lanyards at the Welcome Center in the Arrivals Hall, at the Traveler’s Aid desk in the Departures Hall or by submitting a request on our Contact Us page.
Miami
Minneapolis-St Paul
Orlando: Lanyards are available at the Main Terminal Information Booths, located on Level 3 (Departures Level), prior to the security checkpoint. A valid flight itinerary or boarding pass is required. Wearing a lanyard DOES NOT guarantee fast tracking through security or any preferential treatment. Passengers may also arrange special assistance with their airline and TSA Cares.

San Jose
Seattle
Tulsa
Houston
Philadelphia*
Cincinnati*
Bloomington Airport*
Denver*
Sanford Airport (Orlando)*
Charlotte Douglas*
Memphis, Tennessee*

* coming soon

Traveling With An Autistic Child

I’ve spoken to some fellow parents, whose children happen to be on the autistic spectrum. For some of their fantastic travel tips for kids on the autistic spectrum see here. Do look out for the sunflower lanyard for hidden disabilities. Sometimes additional bands can be available too. Your child does not need to wear them so another party traveling with them can.

The majority of airports will have some sort of provision for people travelling with hidden disabilities. Airport staff will look for wristbands, stickers, lanyards etc.

USA

In the USA, Wings for Autism and the TSA have teamed up with JetBlue and the Charles River Centre at Boston Logan Airport to not only provide training for airport and airline staff, but allow families to familiarise themselves with the airport and travel procedures and kids get a chance to practice the key stages, including boarding the aircraft. This event is held twice a year. For more information please email wingsforautism@massport.com Wings for Aviation often visit other USA airports for one day events too.

In general, always have a look online at your airports website, as they very often provide additional resources either with videos that you can watch from home or guides to help you navigate through the terminal. 

traveling with an autistic child
Sometimes yellow sunflowers stickers are given, but the lanyard is better as it doesn’t fall off!

Flying With an ADHD Child

I’ve had a parent with plenty of expertise address this, since she has travelled with her daughter who has ADHD and her son who is likely to be given a similar diagnosis. Vicki also often travels with another family with a child with ADHD. Vicki has flown with her daughter since she was a baby and she is now currently 12, so they have developed strategies which have helped travel go more smoothly. Here are her tips on flying with hidden disabilities.

“Flying with my children with ADHD does still give me cold chills if I’m really honest.  However there are some really simple things you can do to try and make it all run as smoothly as possible.

  1. Do a visual countdown.  Depending on your child and the age of them this could be a month or a week.  Put it on the calendar.  Again dependent on age, I would put a travel itinerary next to it.  I always tell my kids what time I’ll be setting the alarm to wake up, breakfast etc, the time the taxi will come, roughly how long the journey to the airport is. If we are going to eat a meal at the airport etc.  Then they have a visual idea of how the day is going to run.

2. Dress your kids in easy to take off clothing and items that are not going to set off alarms on systems.  Try to avoid belts etc.

3. Keep all your travel documents together in a big folder.  Take your time with it all.  If you stay calm, the children will be more likely to too.  Have some money for a trolley and some money for the airport at the other end so you don’t have to waste time sorting this with tired kids.

4. Check at the airport first, but most UK airports now have some kind of assistance for invisible disabilities.  Normally located at passenger services, you will be given a lanyard or sticker (lanyard is far more preferable at the sticker won’t last for the return journey, as I found out to my detriment).  This little blessing will allow you to pass through customs and most queues with relative ease.  I CANNOT queue with my daughter and make it out alive.  The introduction of these has literally changed my flying experience.

5. Bring ear defenders.  These are invaluable if you have a child like my daughter who is unable to cope with all the noise of the airport.  It keeps her so calm.

6. For flights without inflight entertainment I always download a movie or two for them to watch with headphones.  A must is extra powerpacks, if those babies go off mid-fIight you will be reaching for your parachute! However, I do also pack puzzle books in case of a technical glitch.  Uno is a great game to pass the time to.

flying with kids with ADHD- Flying with Hidden Disabilities

7. I always have an abundance of snacks.  If I am fortunate enough that one of my kids is sleeping then I will not be waking them for anything but landing!

8. Remember on landing that even once you have stopped it takes a while for the plane to be secured and the passengers to get off.  This is a time when I have experienced many meltdowns.  They simply need to get off at this point and people are staring and it all becomes too much for them.  Stay seated and calm if possible!  Maybe bring out a new game or magazine that you haven’t shown all flight.  Something novel to distract them with.

9. Save some snacks for whilst you wait in baggage reclaim.  Often this is where my daughter will lose it.  She’s tired and bored and just needs to go.  Every minute is a killer.  Play an eye spy type game, anything that will keep them occupied.  You are so close, you are nearly there, keep going!

10. My daughter loves to run/escape when she has a meltdown.  She does not care where she is or what danger she is placing herself in. I would always write down your mobile number and name on her (even if they know it, you would be amazed how quick they forget it when they are panicked and scared) .

Other illnesses or disabilities

Regarding other illnesses or disabilities, there are some requirements in place, depending on the severity of an infant or childs’ illness or disability. The first point of call, is always to contact your airline directly.

When the issue is more severe, parents will need to complete a medical form for the airline medical centre to assess the risk to that child whilst travelling, and to ensure that proper care can be provided. This can be anything from a condition from birth, to a temporary illness, injury or surgery, but should not result in a refusal to travel.

Any other less serious illness or disability should not need pre-planning, unless of course it is contagious! For instance, you cannot fly if you or your child has open chicken pox spots which are not completely scabbed over.

travel and flying with kids with special needs,  seat
Some airlines provide specialist seats for disabilities but you will likely need to provide your own.

Seating is pre-assigned in an area of the cabin that is more comfortable or where the passenger requests, usually a bassinet/bulkhead seat but not the emergency exit. Some airlines provide a special chair for free.

In all cases, many airlines offer a quicker check in process by using the Special Assistance Desk, which means there is usually no queuing involved. If any medical equipment is being carried as part of the baggage allowance, they are free of any excess charges.

Some airlines, like Emirates, use a company that will assist any passengers if there is any member who is ill or disabled, again free of charge, quite often requested if Mum or Dad is travelling alone with the child/children.

At airport security, passengers are encouraged to use the Family route, if it is available. This speeds up the whole security process and again avoids long queues.
Most airlines also offer pre-boarding to anyone with babies or young children, but particularly for those with additional needs.

To help prepare a child for a flight, you may be interested in these tips too.

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