Who hasn’t had a travel nightmare when taking the kids?
But the worst I’ve heard is having a plane of angry passengers booing your family as you try to calm a child on the autism spectrum.
“People are very quick to judge,” explained Laurie Cramer, who now is executive director of the Autism Society of Greater Akron, Ohio.
She recounts a flight experience where her 10-year-old autistic son screamed uncontrollably because he had to put away his electronic device for takeoff and hadn’t been given any warning.
Cramer explained that she subsequently learned that for kids like her son, not being told what to expect can be difficult and enough to set off the tantrum, as well as bad reactions from strangers. “People were awful,” she recalled. “My lesson from that is to always be upfront to flight attendants and others to ask for accommodations.”
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April is Autism Awareness Month. The Autism Society of America, the largest autism advocacy organization, has launched a #CelebrateDifferences campaign to highlight the need for acceptance and inclusion to support people with autism.
That includes vacation, said Christopher Banks, president and CEO. “We want to keep kids in the game,” he explained, adding that families traveling with someone who is on the autism spectrum should be able to do what other families do on vacation.
“Instead of passing judgment on someone whose circumstances you don’t know, ask what you can do to help,” said Banks.
Autism diagnoses are growing, both in children and adults. Last December, the CDC announced that one in 44 children have been diagnosed with autism. Over 7 million people in the United States are on the autism spectrum, many diagnosed as adults, Banks said.
Many in the travel industry “have prioritized creating an inclusive, kinder, more accepting world,” said Arianna Esposito, VP of Services & Supports for Autism Speaks, another major advocacy organization. The organization has developed an Autism Friendly Designation program, and an employee-training program adopted by businesses. Both programs are committed to providing the highest quality of customer inclusive service and support for people with disabilities, including autism.
“I can’t say if the public is more accepting. I think the industry is more accepting,” said Dawn Barclay, author of “Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible and the Neurodiverse.” The book, which is available for pre-order and will be published in August, highlights an array of strategies and suggestions for travel, including autism-certified zoos and aquariums, resorts, cruise lines and more.
Nicole Thibault, who lives near Rochester, N.Y., was prompted to start a travel agency, Magical Story Book Travels, to help families like her own with someone on the autism spectrum. After a disastrous theme park trip with her then 3-year-old son that led to his diagnosis, she said his behavior and reaction to crowds and noise “really brought things to a head.”
“Rather than about what your child cannot do, focus on what your child can do, “ suggests Sarah Marshall, owner of TravelAble Vacations, a travel agency for accessible travel, with a focus on families traveling with autism or medical needs. Marshall, the mom of a child on the the autism spectrum has produced a downloadable 2022 Autism Travel Guide,
But parents clearly need to do their homework ahead of time and speak up for what they need, said Christopher Banks.
For example, TSA Cares is a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities additional assistance, as long as you call (855-787-2227) 72 hours before your flight. Download a TSA notification card, which should help you get whisked through screening without waiting in long lines.
Now entire towns are becoming autism friendly. Visit Visalia, located near Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, is California's first destination marketing organization to become a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), complete with a Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program. Those with autism can wear a free sunflower lanyard, bracelet or lapel pin to indicate that they have a hidden disability and might need some support. They have worked with destinations throughout California to create an autism road trip that includes only places that are Certified Autism Centers, such as The Grammy Museum and the newly opened Sesame Place in San Diego.
Sandals’ Beaches resorts in Jamaica and Turks & Caicos have an array of assistance for these families, including sensory toys, a culinary concierge to support dietary restrictions, advanced training for staff, and an optional service of “One-on-One Beaches Buddy. The “buddy” is a staff member who is autism certified. Also present is Julia, "Sesame Street’s" first character on the autism spectrum.
Beaches Resorts was the first Caribbean all-inclusive resort company to attain the Advanced Certified Autism Center (ACAC) designation from IBCCES. “We remain committed to elevating the inclusive vacation experience at Beaches Resorts," said Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International.
Even adventure companies and cruise lines are committing to inclusiveness. Quasar Expeditions is hosting its first Galapagos cruise dedicated to travelers with autism and their families in collaboration with Denise Carbon, a special needs expert with 30 years of experience in the field.
Royal Caribbean has been certified by Autism on the Seas with an Autism Friendly Certification. That includes priority check-in, boarding and departure, special dietary accommodations, and flexible grouping by ability in Adventure Ocean programs.
Autism on the Seas, meanwhile, offers “staffed cruises” on Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruises, and resort stays, including Walt Disney World catering to families with children, teens and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Christopher O’Shea noted that with two children on the autism spectrum, he and his wife were reluctant to travel anywhere. Then they won a trip to Beaches. They have been returning every year in the decade since, thanks to all the accommodations and understanding from the trained staff. As a result, “Beaches has been a place where my son and daughter could start to explore their independence. We have had so many positive experiences.”
The key, he added, is for parents to be clear about their children’s needs. “I think many parents want to have their kids be seen as 'normal' and are worried about their kids being stigmatized,” he said.
“Every child deserves to travel,” said Dawn Barclay.
Every family too, no matter their special needs.
(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow TakingTheKids on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. The Kid’s Guide to Philadelphia, the 13th in the kid’s guide series, was published in 2020, with The Kid’s Guide to Camping coming in 2021.)