How the travel industry is sensitising staff to cater to autistic tourists

The growing frequency of autism diagnoses and the gap in travel services for those dealing with autism created an overlooked market

Sea Beach
Representative image

When Nicole Thibault had her first child, she imagined travelling everywhere with him. But by age 2, he would become upset by simply passing a restaurant that smelled of garlic. Waiting in line elicited tantrums and crowded places overwhelmed him. Autism was diagnosed within the year.

“I thought maybe our family dream of travel wouldn’t happen,” said Ms. Thibault, 46, of Fairport, NY, who now has three children. But she spent the next three years learning to prepare her son for travel by watching videos of future destinations and attractions so that he would know what to expect. The preparation helped enable him, now 14 and well-traveled, to enjoy adventures as challenging as exploring caves in Mexico. It also encouraged Ms. Thibault to launch a business, Magical Storybook Travels, planning travel for families with special needs.

Now the travel industry is catching up to the family. A growing number of theme parks, special attractions and hotels are introducing autism training and sensory guides that highlight triggers, providing resources in times of need and assuring families they won’t be judged.

Battling stigma, finding acceptance

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 59 children falls on the autism spectrum disorder, up from one in 150 in 2002.

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a developmental disability that can cause challenges in social interaction, communication and behaviour. Some may have sensory sensitivities and many have trouble adapting to changes in routine, which is the essence of travel.

The growing frequency of autism diagnoses and the gap in travel services for those dealing with autism created an overlooked market.

“There’s still a lot of stigma for families with children on the spectrum,” said Meredith Tekin, the president of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which certifies organisations from schools to hospitals in cognitive disorders. In the past two to three years, the organisation has worked with more than 100 travel providers on autism programs. “We went from zero in travel to getting requests from dozens and dozens of places,” she said.

Some families skip travel altogether — an IBCCES study found 87 per cent of families whose children have autism don’t take family vacations — but others insist it feeds minds and teaches coping skills.

“We’re bringing up kids in a world that’s constantly changing and the more we can do to make them a little bit more comfortable with change, the better,” said Alan Day, a travel agent who founded Autism Double-Checked, a consultancy that trains travel companies in autism readiness, after he was told his own son was on the spectrum.

Autism-friendly places

IBCCES certification requires 80 per cent of staff members who interact with guests to undergo up to 21 hours of training in sensory awareness, communication and social skills; to pass an exam demonstrating their understanding; and be recertified every two years. The organisation also conducts an on-site review to suggest changes that would better serve travellers on the spectrum.

Among the newly certified destinations are SeaWorld Orlando, the Aquatica Orlando and Discovery Cove, where visitors can swim with dolphins and snorkel with tropical fish. All three were certified in April. 

The website Autism Travel (autismtravel.com) lists IBCCES-certified destinations including Beaches Resorts, the three family-friendly all-inclusives in Jamaica and the Turks & Caicos, that qualified in 2017. In April, the resorts received advanced certification, introducing new one-on-one childcare. Beaches also extended autism training to its dive instructors.