Airports are stressful, especially for neurodivergent individuals. Crowded check-in and security areas, delays and noisy seating areas can cause sensory overload and anxiety. While sensory rooms accommodating neurodivergent individuals are often available, they are usually located post-security, far from gates, concessions and other traveler amenities.
Airports also often have limited square footage available for all the functions they must provide, including airline counters, check-in space, security checkpoints, airline gate lounges, employee spaces, food, beverage and retail spots, airport facility administration, TSA spaces and more. Carving out space for neurodivergent experiences or sensory rooms can be challenging.
To address these issues, sensory experiences can be designed along a traveler’s journey path. By spreading these inclusive elements throughout commonly traveled paths, we can provide people with more frequent and organic encounters with these inclusive elements compared to having a singular sensory room in a specific location. This approach not only helps neurodivergent individuals alleviate stress but also enhances the overall experience for anyone who may be impacted by overstimulating environments.
The commonly traveled paths may differ depending on the user, such as travelers, airline pilots, flight attendants, airport facility administration and staff, food, beverage and retail staff, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents. Even those who are not neurodivergent may need sensory relief and seek respite due to the stress of their jobs.
Join us as we explore the traveler’s journey, starting at home and ending at the flight gate.
To help travelers prepare for their trip, airports can provide apps that allow travelers to secure their boarding passes, as well as view maps of the facility that aid with arrival, parking and terminal navigation.
Encouraging travelers to visit an airport’s website is also important. The robust information found on the website can answer common questions about arrival, security screening, terminal concessions and more.
The location of any specific spaces designed to support sensory processing, as well as available programs such as the sunflower lanyard program (a globally recognized symbol and program for people with unseen disabilities, such as autism, dementia, hearing impairments or PTSD) should also be highlighted on an airport’s website and app.
Cramped and loud departure halls, long lines for check-in counters, heavy baggage, confusing signage, crowds of harried travelers and access to technology can be overwhelming for neurodivergent individuals entering airports. Thoughtful planning and design in these areas can alleviate stress and promote a more calming, ordered and positive experience.
Clear wayfinding, low audio/visual distractions, and warm colors and materials can ease anxiety in this bustling environment. Self-service kiosks and lines for in-person check-in can reduce crowds and queuing. Concessions spaces, lounges and other seating options provide opportunities for respite and regrouping. Some airports also offer service animals to help soothe anxious travelers. Informing staff of the needs of neurodiverse individuals can help ward off potential problems.
Security screenings are often one of the most anxiety-inducing portions of the traveler’s journey. Incorporating design features that alleviate that stress and anxiety can help.
Within the security checkpoint, airports can tailor the audio and acoustics to reduce unnecessary sounds. Designers can incorporate different lighting types with varied lighting levels combined with calming scents to create a more relaxing environment. Sustainable design elements such as proper ventilation and air quality can also support a more relaxing environment.
Airports are also exploring biometric screening technology that uses facial recognition and eliminates human interaction and paper documentation during the screening process. Programs like CLEAR use biometric data to screen and identify travelers during the security process, expediting the length of time for TSA to review photo identification and boarding passes. This could dramatically impact the security screening process.
After passing through security, travelers are searching for their gate and surrounding amenities prior to boarding.
Spacious hallways, airport lounges, seating near gates and sensory rooms provide much-needed comfort and reprieve for travelers. Varied seating options, including quiet zones and spaces nestled away from the main concourse, as well as areas for gathering and interaction, support diverse needs. Wide spacing between seating also helps reduce congestion and overcrowding.
Retail, food and beverage concessions can cater to personal preferences with a mix of in-person dine-in and check-out, automated self-check-out and touchless technology via mobile devices, alleviating long ordering and check-out lines.
Airport terminals can incorporate spaces that promote health and well-being, including nap pods, mother’s rooms, spas, health clubs, yoga and meditation rooms, chapels and outdoor terraces for dining and relaxation. Art museums or exhibits also provide places for contemplation and respite.
Biophilic elements, including lush landscaping, pocket parks and natural materials, create calming, atmosphere that evokes feelings of nature. Biophilic design strategies can mimic the visual, tactile and auditory elements of the natural world, reducing stress and boosting health outcomes for travelers.
To cater to travelers with hypo-sensitive needs, airport terminals can incorporate play zones with inclusive and sensory toys for children, and flight simulation rooms to prepare travelers for their journey.
Additional design features, including floor-to-ceiling windows with views to the airfield and natural landscapes, varied lighting levels, water and art features, and calming paint colors and materials, can create a soothing environment. Proper ventilation and healthy air quality also improve processing ability and mental well-being.
Planning and Design Considerations
During the initial planning process, airport planners and designers should consider both hyper- and hyposensitive environments that offer different sensory experiences. Collaborating with airport stakeholders and community advocates can help determine the programming needed for sensory rooms or inclusive spaces along commonly traveled pathways, as well as the targeted users and location for these spaces.
Designers should carefully select materials that support inclusive environments for different types of users throughout their airport journey. Terrazzo or carpeted flooring, for example, can absorb loud noises and overhead announcements that may overwhelm those in the terminal, providing a better acoustical experience. Different lighting options can also play a critical role, from brighter lighting for wayfinding to softer lighting for relaxation. It’s also important to provide clear lines of sight and intuitive wayfinding via architectural elements.
Seating options can provide neurodivergent travelers with more control over their airport experience. Varied seating options in different locations, such as comfortable lounge chairs, benches, or dining tables and chairs for work and eating, can accommodate different preferences and needs.
These inclusive spaces can be installed along commonly traveled paths or within sensory rooms, ultimately improving the user experience and creating a more calming environments for all travelers.
Note: Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a broad range of conditions, some of which likely will be unresponsive to design solutions. HOK’s approach to inclusive design is based on our experience as designers and architects with the objective of providing a wide range of options for users with different needs. Any attempt to address the needs of neurodiverse individuals should also include review of human resources policies, implementation of technology solutions and building operations among other considerations. HOK does not represent that any design solution discussed in this article is capable of achieving any specific outcome for an individual user.