Traveling can be challenging for parents of children on the spectrum – the changes in routines, unpredictability, crowds, new noises, sights, and smells, can all make the experience overwhelming and difficult to adjust to.

Nicole Thibault, 46 from Fairport, New York, told the New York Times that when she had her first child, she dreamed of traveling with him. When he was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, she knew that although this dream would be a difficult one to obtain, it was not impossible.

Over the next three years following her son’s diagnosis, she spent time preparing him to travel by watching videos of the destinations. Her son is now 14-years-old and has traveled to a number of places along with his family – including many Certified Autism Centers. Thibault’s experience inspired her to launch a business to help plan travel for families with special needs, called Magical Storybook Travels.

The Thibault Family at Discovery Cove, Orlando, FL

With the growing number of autism diagnoses and the gap in travel industry services for those with autism, there is a widely overlooked population.

Meredith Tekin, the president of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, says in the past couple of years, the organization has worked with over 100 travel providers on autism programs. “We went from zero in travel to getting requests from dozens and dozens of places,” she said.

An I.B.C.C.E.S study found 87 percent of families with children with autism do not take family vacations and skip traveling altogether. This may be because only 11 percent of families are satisfied with current travels options for families with autism, and 93 percent of families would be more inclined to travel if autism certified options were available.

So who is bridging the gap?

An I.B.C.C.E.S. certification requires 80 percent of staff who interact with guests to: 1) undergo up to 21 hours of training in sensory awareness, communication and social skills; 2) pass a certification exam to demonstrate their understanding; and 3) be re-certified every two years.

In April 2019, SeaWorld Orlando, the Aquatica Orlando and Discovery Cove Orlando became newly certified destinations. Each park created a quiet room with neutral decor, minimal noise, dim lighting, and interactive toys where families can decompress. The International Board created sensory guides for the theme parks (available online) that rate attractions on a scale of 1 to 10 in the five senses. In addition to this, the guides list locations of quiet rooms, low sensory areas, and where to pick up noise-reducing headphones available to check in/out during your visit.

“Our programs accommodating guests with physical disabilities have been robust,” said David Heaton, vice president of Aquatica Orlando. “We saw an opportunity to improve assistance with developmental disabilities.”

As a growing number of theme parks become more inclusive, hotels are taking strides in the right direction as well. Autism Travel lists Beaches Resorts as a certified destination, located in Jamaica and Turks & Caicos. The resorts recently introduced new one-on-one childcare, a private room for check in, a culinary program that allows for a broader range of special requests, and autism training to its dive instructors.

Being friendly to all communities not only spreads word quickly, but you gain loyal guests! We are excited to see more and more theme parks, hotels, and special attractions introduce autism training and sensory guides.

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