Autism doesn’t have to mean no family vacation
Traveling with children can be trying. Traveling with a child on the autism spectrum can be especially challenging and overwhelming. So much so, some families choose to stay home. But there are resorts and attractions, as well as airlines and cruise lines, that are welcoming and accommodating. Here are some getaway ideas, as well as tips for ensuring a safe and enjoyable trip.
This chocolate-centric theme park in Hershey, Pa., is sweet on hosting families with children on the autism spectrum.
Hershey partners with Parent to Parent of Pennsylvania, a group that ensures the park meet the needs of kids with disabilities, including an accessibility program. The way it works: Via a Ride Accessibility Questionnaire, guests with disabilities learn what rides and attractions are best for them. A ‘Boarding Pass’ is then generated that ultimately gives the guests special access to rides and entertainment.
“We tailor our guests’ experiences to meet their unique needs providing a list of attractions that can be safely enjoyed based on their unique abilities,” says Laura Woodburn, director of ride operations. One of the beauties of the program is that it is available to review online prior to arriving. You can also enroll at the park at Hospitality Services.
Hersheypark employees also undergo extensive training on how best to handle guests with disabilities, especially children with autism, says Woodburn.
And, because many kids on the spectrum have food sensitivities, the park recently opened The Outpost food stand which features a menu that is gluten-free, nut-fee, and fish and shellfish-free. www.hersheypark.com
TradeWinds Island Resorts
Actually two resorts in one — the family-friendly Island Grand and more intimate Guy Harvey Outpost — these autism-friendly properties are located on St. Pete Beach in Florida. Separated by a five-minute beach walk, if you stay at one, you can use amenities at both, which include 14 dining options (including gluten-free), seven swimming pools, and two activity centers.
Six years ago, The Center for Autism & Related Disabilities designated TradeWinds an autism-friendly business. What that means: resort employees underwent training to meet the needs of guests with autism and their families — and they continue to. Safety Kits are also available, free of charge — things like a hanging door alarm, outlet covers and table corner cushions. And, the reservations department has a list of questions for families, including about topics like sensitivity to cleaning products and noise. Informational material, called Social Books, can be sent before your trip. They provide detailed hotel descriptions with photos so kids know what to expect. www.justletgo.com/autismfriendly
Delta Air Lines recently opened a multisensory room at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in a partnership with The Arc, an autism advocacy group. “The room is a calming, supportive environment for customers on the autism spectrum located in a quiet space on F Concourse,” says Rachel Solomon, coordinator of corporate communications for Delta Air Lines. The room, Solomon says, features a mini-ball pit, bubbling water sculpture, a tactile activity panel, and other items children can interact with to help calm and prepare them for their travel experience.
Children on the spectrum, and their families, can also get a VIP tour at airports like Minneapolis-St. Paul, as part of a familiarization program run by Navigating Autism, an autism nonprofit. The program simulates a realistic flight for kids (check-in, boarding, etc.) so kids can become familiar with the routine of air travel before flying. “During these tours, pilots and airport employees volunteer their time to help children and young adults with autism address their fears and uncertainties about air travel,” says Solomon. “Volunteers bring families through security, take them on an aircraft, make announcements, and let them have a full tour of the airplane, in addition to answering questions, all in effort to help them feel more comfortable with air travel.”
“We are definitely seeing an uptick in families traveling with children on the spectrum,” says Debbie-Ann White, spokeswoman for Beaches all-inclusive Caribbean resorts.
Beaches has had an exclusive partnership with Sesame Street for years. “When Sesame Street launched their autism initiative, ‘See Amazing in All Children,’ Beaches committed to training the entire staff on key messages and strategies offered by the program,” says White.
There is no cookie-cutter approach. “Beaches makes adjustments that are based on each child’s needs and family preferences,” says White. “Upon booking or even inquiring about a stay, guests interested in speaking with a trained on-resort Kids Camp manager are given direct access to do so. They can have an open dialogue about activities, hands on support from staff, dietary requirements, etc. Once on resort, guests are welcomed to create a customized visit for their child and family from preferred activities and schedules to structured meal plans.”
The guest rooms and resorts’ public places are also evaluated and certified by Safe Kids Worldwide, a company dedicated to protecting children from unintentional injuries. www.beaches
A cruise is an especially attractive escape for families. Shelton, Conn.-based Autism on the Seas has organized and staffed Royal Caribbean International cruises for families with special needs for nearly 10 years, and also works with Celebrity, Norwegian, Carnival, and Disney cruise lines, says owner/founder Michael Sobbell.
“Our professional volunteer staff (educated, experienced, background-checked, and sanctioned by the cruise line) accompanies families on their cruise to provide as typical a vacation as possible,” says Sobbell. Services include respite times throughout the cruise, private sessions at most of the ship’s venues, reserved seating for shows and meals, private muster drills, expedited boarding and disembarkation, and special-needs name tags. Siblings are included in all the activities.
“We have approximately 500 families cruise with us each year,” says Sobbell. “We have been increasing our number of families each year by 20 to 25 percent and have a return rate of approximately 75 to 80 percent.”
Families can also opt to journey without the company’s staff and still receive the Cruise Assistance Package at no cost including guidance and consultation on needs or issues that arise, priority boarding and disembarkation, customized accommodated muster drills, and more.
And the company recently launched free Ship Tours designed to provide a simulated experience with a two-to-three-hour tour conducted by the Royal Caribbean International and the Autism on the Seas staff, while a cruise ship is docked in its home port. Also, a foundation was recently created “to reach families that once could not afford what is often taken for granted, a true vacation,” says Sobbell. www.SeasforAutism.com
There are obvious things you can do to make the trip easier — like travel in the off-season with fewer crowds. Consider these expert tips, too.
Eliminate as much of the unknown as possible, says Nancy Wells, mother of two adult daughters with autism (one with a very mild form and one with very severe autism), and founder of AbleTalks, an Arkansas-based nonprofit focused on educating young adults with autism and providing them with social and life skills. “It’s all about planning ahead,” she says. “That includes talking to your children about what will happen, what could happen, what is expected of them on the trip.” Many places also sell tickets online so you can plan ahead more easily.
Eating at familiar locations, such as chain restaurants, also helps, suggests Wells, but still include “an occasional splurge to get some local flavor.”
Lori Wall, an upstate New York travel agent and parent of a 12-year-old son on the autism spectrum, suggests booking a getaway with a pool. “Many kids on the spectrum love to swim,” she says. “So if you can book a hotel or resort with a pool, all the better.”
And comfort food is the real deal when vacationing with a child on the spectrum. Autistic children “like what they like,” says Wall. “To have that familiar food with you can sometimes help an agitated child calm down.”
Pack noise-canceling headphones. “If you are going on a vacation where you may be in some louder areas or fireworks are involved, don’t forget headphones,” says Wall. “Our headphones when my son was younger were a lifesaver.”