Do You Have A Child With A Hidden Disability? These 3 Programs Are Helping Families Navigate The Airport To Make Travel A Little Bit Easier

Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash

Please join family travel planner and expert Dina Farmer as she offers you her precious tips on airport travel for families who have a child with a hidden disability. Dina is a mother of two wonderful little boys, one of which is on the autism spectrum. Dina helps families with autism alleviate stress in order to plan the most amazing vacation. 

If you are a family with a child with a hidden disability, it can be a challenge when traveling.  Even when you have provided your child with a really thought-out social story about what to expect at the airport, it isn’t exactly the same as actually going to the airport.  There can be lots of anxiety building up for your child with all the hustle and bustle of a new adventure.  I strongly encourage you to share social stories and build up excitement by talking with your child about your travel plans.  However, in addition to the build-up, airports offer programs to make traveling a lot easier for families with a hidden disability.

Three programs for you to take advantage of include:

  • Wings for Autism
  • TSA Cares – USA Specific
  • Sunflower Lanyard Program


Travel with a child who has a hidden disability doesn't have to be stressful. These 3 programs are trying to help.
Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Wings for Autism by The Arc 

The first program, Wings for Autism, is run by The Arc. It’s a U.S.-based program that helps families with hidden disabilities prepare for a dry run of what to expect at the airport.  This program not only reinforces what has been learned from a social story, but it also helps a child with autism, or other hidden disability, actually experience what may be experienced at the airport.  Wings help alleviate some of the stress that people with autism and other hidden disabilities,  and their families, may experience when traveling by air. This is accomplished by providing families with the opportunity to experience and learn about the different stimuli at the airport and how it might affect their loved ones.

This program works both ways and provides training for airport staff, airline staff, TSA officers, and other personnel. It gives everyone the opportunity to learn how to provide better services to travelers with a hidden disability. Staff also improve their disability competency/acceptance and processes for accommodating ALL passengers who fly, no matter their ability.

How the program works:

Families can sign up with their local chapter. Check this website to find your local chapter.  Once a family signs up for the program, they will go through a rehearsal process.  Families will check-in at the airport.  They will then offload their luggage and proceed through security.  Next, they will learn what to expect in security screening. This includes everything from taking off shoes to going through the metal detectors.  Once past security, everyone will then board the plane.

It depends on the chapter, but the plane could just sit at the gate and then the families will deboard the plane, or it may taxi the tarmac and return to the gate, and families will then deboard and proceed to the baggage claim as they normally would.  Everyone picks up their bags and finishes the rehearsal. *Please note, Due to COVID-19 and CDC recommendations, Wings events are canceled until further notice to help prevent the spread of the virus.*

TSA Cares 

TSA Cares is a helpline that provides additional assistance during the security screening process to travelers with disabilities, medical conditions, and other special circumstances.  It’s for travelers who require special accommodations. It is also for those with concerns about the security screening process at the airport.  This is especially helpful for families traveling with a child with a hidden disability. Families may ask a TSA officer or supervisor for a passenger support specialist who can provide on-the-spot assistance.

How this program works:

  • You call the TSA Cares hotline at least 72 hours before your flight
  • During this phone call, you relay your flight information for arrival
  • You relay your departing flight information as well
  • Tell the agent what needs to consider during security screening

This is not a skip-screening or skip-the-line program. It simply provides assistance for security screenings with less stress and shorter waits. ⁣To ensure your security and safety, all travelers undergo screening at the checkpoint. You can consult the TSA officer about the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening process. You may provide the officer with the TSA notification card or other medical documentation to describe your condition. Obtain the notification card from the TSA website.

Screening at the checkpoint by technology or a pat-down will be required. If your TSA PreCheck™ designation has been verified at a participating airport, you do not need to remove shoes, laptops, 3-1-1 liquids, belts, or light jackets during the screening process. I highly recommend obtaining TSA PreCheck or Global Entry well in advance, especially when traveling with a child with a hidden disability.  It makes the process move a lot faster. It even saved me a couple of times when I almost missed my flight.

However, if you are required to undergo additional screening for any reason, a pat-down may be required. This includes the removal of items such as shoes, belts, or light jackets. Also, TSA officers may swab your hands, mobility aids, equipment, and other external medical devices to test for explosives using explosives trace detection technology.  Be sure to talk with your child again about this, but this is something that you may have already encountered if you signed up for a Wings for Autism event.

Pro tip:

When going through this process with a person with an intellectual disability or developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, they can be screened without being separated from their traveling companions, if traveling with one. Thankfully, each time we go through, TSA only swabs my hands and sends my boys with me through the metal detector to mitigate any anxiety that could come up from my oldest son being separated from me.

The TSA website has tons of information about how the process will go for many different types of disabilities. For U.S.-based travelers, this is a great resource to look into before you fly enabling you to better prepare for security screenings. You do not need to prove you have a disability, but a doctor’s note could be helpful if you feel you need it.  Used in conjunction with the next program, I truly believe your flying experience will be better than you ever imagined with a loved one with a disability, especially a hidden one.

The Sunflower Lanyard Program 

Originating in the U.K. In 2016, London Gatwick Airport designed and launched the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program. The central question was: “How can we identify passengers with a non-obvious disability?” Thus, the creation of the sunflower design on a green background for a lanyard.  It is a subdued but visible sign to airport staff to tell them that the wearer has a hidden disability. These passengers often need additional help with navigating the airport, more time going through the airport, etc.  Since its launch in 2016, major airports and venues in the U.K. adopted the Sunflower Lanyard Program. You can easily keep up to date with this list of airports that participate in the program around the world!

Yes, you can use this program in conjunction with TSA Cares.  It is a separate program that tells staff at these U.S. airports that extra help might be needed beyond what TSA Cares offers.

There is no qualifying list of hidden disabilities that can have a sunflower lanyard. You can purchase a Sunflower product directly from the website for yourself of a loved one. You can also pick one up from a business or organization that participates in the program.  This is not an entitlement program. It only shows staff that you have a hidden disability and might need some support.


Help is available for families who have a child with a hidden disability

This list of programs will make your travels a little easier when flying with a person with a hidden disability.  Hopefully, these programs will put you at ease despite your worries about traveling.
I can definitely understand why you would be nervous, and even anxious, about traveling with a child with a hidden disability. I have been in that position myself! However, these programs exist to help you enjoy the traveling portion of travel. I urge you to take advantage of these programs. It is possible to be successful, and fun, when traveling with a person who has a hidden disability.

A Certified Autism Travel Professional, Dina Farmer is the founder of Lily and Magnolia Travel in Colorado Springs, CO. She has been widely featured in the media and hosts the Travel Autism Podcast.   



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