A lazy beach vacation in Southern California turned sour a few years ago when Marc Garcia and his wife attempted to take their now 7-year-old autistic son to a few museums and attractions.
“He had meltdown after meltdown, and we could hear and see the muffled whispers and the awkward stares,” said Garcia, the president and CEO of Visit Mesa.
Not surprisingly, 87 percent of families with autistic children don’t take vacations, according to a study by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. Since one out of 59 children has been diagnosed with autism (and that number is higher for boys), this is a staggering number of families who skip vacations.
But today, thanks to destinations that are obtaining autism travel certifications, it’s becoming less restrictive to travel with an autistic child.
The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards certifies organizations to make them autism-friendly (autism-friendly in itself doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but the certification means that at least 80 percent of the staff received autism training).
Destinations that want to receive the credential need to complete evidence-based training. The certification also typically requires an onsite review with additional recommendations to policies, procedures, communication, and other guest experience enhancements, said Meredith Tekin, the Florida-based IBCCES president.
Destinations who want to take this even further can become Advanced Certified Autism Centers, and for this they must do additional training.
All locations that have been certified are listed here, at autismtravel.com.
“Every family and individual is a bit different so they know their needs best, but choosing organizations who have committed to the CAC process and are communicating directly with families to roll out the welcome mat is a great place to start,” Tekin said.
To be certified, each location needs 80 percent of the staff who interact with visitors to undergo up to 21 hours of training to learn about autism and communication; to pass a test; and to recertify every two years.
Mesa, Ariz., was the first autism-certified city in the country, as a result of Garcia’s disastrous trip with his son.
“I said, ‘I can’t do anything about this in California, but I can do something about this in Mesa,’” Garcia said.
Today, the Visit Mesa Website has certified sensory guides so parents can determine how their children may be affected by each attraction before the visit. For example, if the family wants to go to Jake’s Unlimited — a theme park that would traditionally not be great for autistic kids thanks to its abundance of lights, movements, and sounds — they could check out the guide, which ranks each ride and describes it. The Spin Zone Bumper Cars are “low impact” but have “likely loud noises from other riders, as well as ambient noise from other areas of the room.”
The autism travel planning site also lists the hotels, restaurants, and attractions that have been autism-certified.
Children on the autistic spectrum are at risk for sensory overload, so loud venues, bright lights, and crowds can be difficult, especially when they’re on vacation and out of their normal routine.
“By curating environments and events modified for the person with autism — and educating hotels, restaurants, venues, and the public on the needs and accommodations of our people with autism and their families, autism families feel more confident to leave the house and try something new, whether that be a movie, bowling, a meal out, or a vacation,” said Becky Large, founder and executive director of Champion Autism Network, based in Surfside Beach, S.C.
In addition to looking for destinations that have been autism certified, Large said that families seek out spots that are aware of the challenges associated with traveling with autistic children, and are progressive in accommodating those challenges.
Myrtle Beach, for example, offers modified and curbside check-in services at hotels, along with access to noise-canceling headphones for louder attractions.
Seaworld in Orlando, which recently became a Certified Autism Center, now has a quiet room for anyone who needs relief from sensory stimulation. It has an additional low sensory area in the middle of the park, along with certified staff who are trained to cater to those with autism.
Some spots that aren’t necessarily autism certified have started offering additional hours just for those on the spectrum. Mission San Juan Capistrano recently launched a pilot program open to ASD adults and children, along with their family. They are invited inside on special dates during special hours so that it’s a calmer environment. A quiet room was also created for visitors who need a space to decompress.
The Legoland New York Resort — which is scheduled to open this spring or summer just outside New York City, will feature quiet rooms complete with weighted blankets, dim lighting, and tactile toys. Legoland Florida Resort and Legoland California already implemented these spaces at their parks and hotels.
Not sure where to start? The KultureCity app provides resources and information on sensory inclusive locations, a certification for spots that have completed initiatives such as staff training and impactful modifications to provide daily accessibility for all, said Rose Morris, mother of a son on the autism spectrum and founder of Abram’s Nation, a Pittsburgh-based company that creates solutions for families with special needs.
Families can also prepare prior to vacationing, regardless of whether the destination is certified or ready for those on the spectrum.
“If you’re traveling by plane, call ahead and note the diagnosis in your file,” Morris said. “You can also request early seating for a little more time and a little less chaos in the boarding process.”
It’s also helpful to research the restaurants ahead of time with the child so you can choose the menu items, making these a predictable part of the trip, said Claire Thomas-Duckwitz, a Longmont, Colo.-based licensed psychologist specializing in kids with neurodevelopmental disabilities.
“Familiarity and predictability are key,” Thomas-Duckwitz said.
Some other strategies include looking at the hotel and destination online each night for a week or two prior to the trip with your child. It’s also helpful to stay in the same hotel chair for every trip so there’s some familiarity and predictability, she said.