How the Travel Industry Is Becoming More Welcoming to Travelers with Autism

Autism-friendly offerings benefit travelers and businesses alike

Family of four walking in grass through a garden facing away from camera. A brunette woman is one the left, hold hands with a young girl. The girl is also holding hands with a brunette man who is holding hands with a young boy.

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Can you imagine never taking a family vacation? Not because of financial or time constraints but simply because there's no way to know if a destination can accommodate your needs? That's the reality for 87 percent of families with autistic children, according to a 2019 survey.

"The thought of traveling with a child with autism can be too overwhelming for some," Nicole Thibault, a mom and certified autism travel planner, told Youth Today. Parents choose to skip vacations entirely instead of risking a meltdown or worrying about offending staff. But at the same time, 93 percent of respondents would be more likely to travel if there were autism-certified options.

After years of hard work and constant advocacy, the travel industry is finally taking note of autistic travelers and their needs. Theme parks, hotels, island resorts, and even entire cities are working with disability advocates and organizations like the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) to become autism-certified and truly welcome neurodiverse travelers.

The organization has been in business for 21 years. It is the gold standard of autism certification, requiring several levels of training to ensure that companies marketing themselves as autism-friendly deliver on that promise.

Ultra-Accessibility Is the Future of Theme Parks

For years, theme parks have been reworking their offering to provide more accommodations for neurodivergent children. Quiet rooms and quiet areas have popped up in Universal Orlando, and Disney World's Disability Access Service lets people avoid long lines, which can trigger autistic people. But some theme parks are taking things to the next level.

Peppa Pig Theme Park in Florida and Sesame Place San Diego opened as IBCCES Certified Autism Centers this year. This means that at least 80 percent of the staff is trained and certified to support individuals on the spectrum. IBCCES worked with both parks to develop robust sensory guides that make it easy to prepare for an amusement park's many sights, sounds, and smells.

However, the pinnacle of accessible theme parks is in San Antonio, Texas. Morgan's Wonderland is a 25-acre ultra-accessible theme park and the first of its kind. Parents Gordon and Maggie Hartman were inspired to create the park after seeing their daughter Morgan, who has special needs, get rejected when she tried to play with other kids during a vacation. The Hartmans spent the next four years creating a theme park designed specifically for people with disabilities, and in 2010, Morgan's Wonderland opened its doors to much fanfare. And if all goes well, by 2025, there will finally be another ultra-accessible park for families to visit, this time in Missouri.

White plane with Red accents on the nose, tail, and bow taking off from a runway. The runway and buildings in the background are blurry

Courtesy of JSX

Practice Flights Are Making Air Travel Less Scary

Airports are notoriously stressful places. They're noisy and crowded, and navigating security requires a certain familiarity to avoid frustrating TSA agents and other travelers. In fact, according to a survey conducted by The Points Guy, 55 percent of travelers found air travel more stressful than going to work, and 44 percent think flying is worse than going to the dentist. The stress and sounds of air travel can overwhelm an autistic person to meltdown, especially if they're brand new to flying.

Aware of this immense difficulty, some U.S. airports (including Dallas-Ft. Worth and Boston Logan Airport) offer dry runs. Since 2011, these dry runs have offered a low-stakes chance to practice air travel. Participants get boarding passes, go through security, get on their plane, and in some instances, taxi for 30 minutes to get as close to reality as possible. These events, usually held once or twice a year, meet a genuine need and can make travel less scary for autistic travelers.

JSX, an air carrier that offers hop-on, hop-off jet service, is one of several airlines offering dry runs, making the process even more accessible because of how the airline operates. Travelers don't need to deal with TSA lines, and jets depart from a separate hangar, meaning crowds are almost nonexistent. The practice flights are just one element of JSX's autism-friendly offerings. After "witnessing first-hand just how challenging flying could be for customers on the spectrum," CEO Alex Wilcox collaborated with Autism Double-Checked to make JSX the world's first autism-certified air carrier.

There are special quiet areas in lounges. Most importantly, front-facing staff was "trained to assist customers on the spectrum" to make travel painless while keeping tickets relatively affordable. A one-way seat on the all-business-class jets can cost as little as $199.

Buttes in Monument Valley, Arizona, under a blue sky with some large white clouds

JacobH / Getty Images

Destinations Leading the Charge in Autism Accomodations

While access to cities and theme parks for autistic people has improved leaps and bounds in the past few years, progress has been slower for outdoor attractions. While getting out in nature has proven positive effects for autistic people, it's also unpredictable. The desire to make the outdoors accessible by giving it a bit of predictability led Loren Penman to establish a nature trail specifically for autistic people.

Consulting with respected leaders like Temple Grandin, Penman designed a one-mile, meticulously maintained loop trail in Letchworth State Park that opened in October 2021. The Autism Nature Trail is wheelchair-accessible and has a variety of sensory stations, from quiet resting spots to an area for kids to run free.

Designers of the trail even found a subtle way to prevent elopement (when a child on the spectrum wanders or runs away from their caregiver) simply by not removing fallen trees and brambles. "You wouldn't notice it immediately, and we were told we should clear the barberries and logs, but we said, 'No, let's leave them; they are natural barriers to running off in the woods,'" Penman told National Geographic.

White clocktower with terracotta tiles and other buildings in Visalia, California on a cloudy day

DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

Visalia, California—the gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks—is an outdoor-adjacent destination working towards autism inclusivity. This past September, the tourism board, Visit Visalia, became a Certified Autism Center and started ramping up its inclusive offerings. The most significant development has been the “Hidden Disabilities Sunflower,” a discreet option for special needs visitors to self-identify. The sunflower emblazoned lanyards, bracelets, and buttons signal to trained staff that a traveler may need extra accommodations. However, it’s unclear how many businesses, beyond the 15 listed partners, have staff trained to recognize the lanyards.

Myrtle Beach has also been working toward being an autism-friendly destination since 2016 through partnerships with Champion Autism Network and, more recently, TravelAbility. In 2022, Visit Myrtle Beach will be publishing a sensory-friendly children’s book, creating an expert-led advisory panel to develop sensory-friendly programming, and establishing a pledge for businesses to “commit to welcoming guests with autism and other neurodiverse disabilities through tangible and meaningful actions.”

The wave of inclusivity continues at the popular all-inclusive resort company, Beaches. In 2017, Beaches Resorts was the first resort company to be autism-certified by IBCCES and is now the first company to ever re-certify as an Advanced Certified Autism Center, valid through 2023. Meeting such strict standards means you can rest assured that a trip to one of the Beaches resorts in Jamaica or Turks and Caicos will go smoothly.

View of an empty street in Mesa Arizona with streelights and a metal fencing. It is dusk and clouds are tinged pink in a periwinkle blue sky

DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

However, there is no destination as autism-friendly as Mesa, Arizona. It is the first and only IBBCES Autism Certified City in the country, first getting the certification in 2019 after almost a year of work. Marc Garcia, president and CEO of Visit Mesa, spearheaded efforts to make the city more accessible after his son, who is on the spectrum, had a meltdown during a trip to San Diego. "It's uncomfortable. Even worse, you're made to feel unwelcome," Garcia told Youth Today when recalling the incident.

To prevent Mesa visitors from experiencing something similar, Garcia worked to make the city a welcoming destination for autistic travelers. By late 2019, close to 4,000 Mesans completed or planned to complete autism certification, while close to 60 businesses and attractions across Mesa earned Certified Autism Center designations. The training "puts the viewer into the world of someone who has autism. If you're at the front desk of a hotel, it's something you may then be able to more readily recognize," Garcia added.

The certification made autistic people feel welcomed and accepted, but it also boosted the city's economy. The mayor of Mesa, John Giles, said, "the certification raised the city's profile, and numerous businesses benefited."

Autism certification has proven profitable for other businesses as well. Based on data provided by IBCCES, Marriott hotels saw a 32 percent increase in the two months after getting certified, while employee morale got a 50 percent boost in just a month. Businesses also saw a 54 percent increase in group bookings, with guest satisfaction improving by 45 percent.

Judging by the continued and renewed interest in accommodating travelers on the spectrum, truly inclusive travel is set to become a reality.

Article Sources
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