Rolling Out the Welcome Mat for Autistic Travelers

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12 Jul 2019, 1:26 am

A growing number of theme parks, hotels and special attractions are introducing autism training and sensory guides.

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The growing frequency of autism diagnoses and the gap in travel services for those dealing with autism created an overlooked market.

There’s still a lot of stigma for families with children on the spectrum,” said Meredith Tekin, the president of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which certifies organizations from schools to hospitals in cognitive disorders. In the past two to three years, the organization has worked with more than 100 travel providers on autism programs. “We went from zero in travel to getting requests from dozens and dozens of places,” she said.

Some families skip travel altogether — an I.B.C.C.E.S. study found 87 percent of families whose children have autism don’t take family vacations — but others insist it feeds minds and teaches coping skills.

“We’re bringing up kids in a world that’s constantly changing and the more we can do to make them a little bit more comfortable with change, the better,” said Alan Day, a travel agent who founded Autism Double-Checked, a consultancy that trains travel companies in autism readiness, after he was told his own son was on the spectrum.

Autism isn’t just a childhood issue, of course. Stephen Gaiber, 30, of Irvine, Calif., began writing the Autistic Traveler blog last year to share his experiences and embolden others like him to travel.

“I fear being misunderstood or not knowing what to do,” he said. “I strive to be mainstream and know what I’m supposed to do by planning ahead.”

I.B.C.C.E.S. certification requires 80 percent of staff members who interact with guests to undergo up to 21 hours of training in sensory awareness, communication and social skills; to pass an exam demonstrating their understanding; and be recertified every two years. The organization also conducts an on-site review to suggest changes that would better serve travelers on the spectrum.

Among the newly certified destinations are SeaWorld Orlando, the Aquatica Orlando and Discovery Cove, where visitors can swim with dolphins and snorkel with tropical fish. All three were certified in April.

Additionally, the International Board created sensory guides for the parks, available online, that rate attractions on a scale of one to 10 in five senses — touch, taste, sound, smell and sight. There are also corresponding signs in the parks with sensory rating.

The website Autism Travel (autismtravel.com) lists I.B.C.C.E.S.-certified destinations including Beaches Resorts, the three family-friendly all-inclusives in Jamaica and the Turks & Caicos, that qualified in 2017. In April, the resorts received advanced certification, introducing new one-on-one childcare, a private room for check in and a culinary program that allows for a greater range of special requests. Beaches also extended autism training to its dive instructors.

In March, the Mall of America near Minneapolis also became autism certified, offering sensory guides to its indoor amusement rides.

The most ambitious among autism-spectrum efforts is in Mesa, Ariz., the Phoenix neighbor that draws significant family traffic with Major League Baseball spring training and water sports on the Salt River. The city aims to be the first autism-certified travel destination in the country, requiring 60 members of its travel bureau, Visit Mesa, including hotels and attractions, to undergo autism training and implement programs to make travelers with autism welcome. City officials say they are more than halfway to their goal and expect to reach it by the end of summer.

For Marc Garcia, the chief executive of Visit Mesa, the program was borne of personal experience; he has a 5-year-old with autism among three children.

We travel like other people and we’ve received the strange looks and awkward stares when your child acts up and has a tantrum at a hotel, restaurant or attraction and it’s uncomfortable,” he said.

Inclusion, he added, is both good practice and good business.

“If you’re friendly to a community, that word spreads fast and they become hyper loyal. We thought it was a good opportunity to do business and to get out in front of it.”


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Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

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