Planning family vacations can be daunting. Due to lack of accessibility and awareness, planning a trip for someone on the autism spectrum can be an even bigger battle. But there are a lot of people who have set out to change that.
HuffPost reached out to travel agents, parents and advocates with personal connections to autism to learn how they’re making travel more inclusive.
Check out their stories below.
The Training And Certification Program
Kerry Magro is a professional speaker and author. He also happens to be on the spectrum. As a kid, he recalls, he didn’t take many family trips because he was initially nonverbal and later had very limited speech, which made his parents nervous about the possibility of being separated. He has also experienced sensitivities to loud noises and textural issues. Now, part of his autism advocacy involves making sure other people on the spectrum can enjoy vacations without worry.
He’s a board member of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which labels theme parks, water parks, resorts, travel agents and more as “autism certified.” Some of its certified autism centers include Sesame Place, the Mall of America, Space Center Houston, Pennsylvania’s Kennywood Park and the Georgia Aquarium.
Being certified means the IBCCES team has trained the location’s staff so employees know what autism is, recognize its various traits such as nonverbal interactions and sensory overload, and offer help when needed. IBCCES also helps put together sensory guides for rides and attractions. Travelers can find a list of autism-certified locations and resources on the Autism Travel site run by IBCCES.
As a board member, Magro serves as an adviser and contributes to the programs for training employees. He’s especially fond of the staff training and its value beyond the travel industry.
“For staff members getting the training, they become more understanding and accepting throughout their entire lives,” he said.
The Travel Agent
Disney parks offer assistance for guests with various special needs, but there’s still work to be done. Nicole Thibault, the travel agent behind Magical Storybook Travels in upstate New York, is partnering with fellow travel agency Vacation Kids to offer a group vacation to Disney World this summer for families with members on the spectrum.
Clients will have access on Facebook to live counseling sessions and a private group that will include advice about the parks and their features, such as long lines for rides and quiet spots. The families will stay at autism-friendly vacation homes, and Thibault will also be at the park to offer assistance if needed.
Thibault has been planning trips inclusive of autism and other special needs for years. (She’s also in her second year as a certified autism travel professional through IBCCES.) Her son has autism, which initially sparked doubt as to what sort of traveling her family could do.
“We always wanted to be that travel family that went everywhere with our kids,” she said. “After that diagnosis, we kind of thought that was over.”
Thibault wants other families to know that’s not the case. There are travel agents skilled in planning these kinds of vacations, and there are many resources online. Thibault’s personal travel tip for fellow autism families is to “set reasonable expectations,” start with a day or weekend trip and then “build from there.”
When Becky Large and her family moved to South Carolina seven years ago, she realized there were local resources for people with autism, like her son, but not for the families who needed support too. She started the nonprofit Champion Autism Network (CAN) to raise awareness of autism in the state with a focus on Myrtle Beach, a popular tourist destination.
“Families can come and have a traditional family experience here, but one modified for somebody with autism so everyone can enjoy it.”
– Becky Large, founder of Champion Autism Network
To learn what autism families really needed, CAN took some polls and learned one of the most requested activities was to be able to go out to a restaurant. This sparked a training program for local restaurant management and staff to learn about autism and understand certain triggers.
CAN has also trained staff at local resorts and created partnerships with various attractions in Myrtle Beach to make sure sensory-friendly areas and items like noise-canceling headphones are available. The Myrtle Beach International Airport also features a quiet room, thanks in part to CAN.
“Families can come and have a traditional family experience here, but one modified for somebody with autism so everyone can enjoy it,” Large said.
The Travel Writer
Marquita Straus is the writer behind the travel blog Tribe on a Quest, which highlights her family’s travels around the world.
She often writes about what it’s like to travel long-term with her oldest daughter, who has autism. Straus, who is also a certified autism travel professional through IBCCES, hopes to help fellow autism families with her travel tips and also raise awareness for how inaccessible many hotels are for guests with various challenges.
“Taking a moment to consider a wider scope of disabilities may prompt changes in hotel design to include door alarms for elopers, corner covers for sharp edges on tables, outlet covers, quiet areas, sensory-focused play structures/activities, expanded menus for food allergies, and kids’ camps with trained professionals,” she said via email.
But above all, she wants to encourage parents of children with any sort of special needs to “get out there and travel.”
“It doesn’t have to be international or even to another state!” she said. “Start small, take the time to prepare your itinerary, and then evaluate how things can be adjusted for the next time.”