Taking Your First Post-Pandemic Vacation? | Organization for Autism Research

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With COVID travel restrictions and requirements easing, people are thinking of summer vacations once again. News outlets are reporting on a number of initiatives to make travel and vacations easier and more fun for autistic kids and adults as well as family members.   

Airlines, for example, are reopening or introducing programs to get autistic kids and others ready for flights. American Airlines relaunched “It’s Cool to Fly With American Airlines,” which allows both children and adults with special needs of any kind to do a dry run. They go through security, board a plane, taxi around the tarmac, and hear and feel the plane as it readies for takeoff, according to an article on the Scary Mommy website.  

In a 2019 press release, American Airlines said the program also helps team members better understand the difficulty that people, especially kids, with special needs face and how they can assist them and their family members to have a better experience. 

Since it began in 2014, the program has helped 6,000 passengers in 49 cities. Currently, however, it is only available in Charlotte (CLT), Philadelphia (PHL), San Diego (SAN), Santa Ana/Orange County (SNA), Los Angeles (LAX), Cleveland (CLE), and Jacksonville (JAX).  

Breeze Airways, a new low-fare airline that serves underserved airports, recently introduced a program for flight attendants to train them on how to identify and alleviate stressors caused by travel for autistic children and adults. 

An Alabama nonprofit, Tourism All-A-Bama, is training hotels across the state to be more aware of and provide assistance to guests who have sensory sensitivities, including autistic guests. The training is provided not only to front desk staff but also to other employees, such as maintenance workers and kitchen and dining room staff. They learn about potential triggers and how to prevent or address them, by offering a quieter room for their stay, for example, or finding a more secluded spot for a meal. Hotels that participate also get sensory kits for their guests, with items such as weighted blankets and headphones. Tourism All-A-Bama offers families a free night in a hotel of their choice that has participated in the training, thanks to funding from the Alabama Developmental Disabilities Council.  

Lesley Walker, engagement manager for United Cerebral Palsy, which manages Tourism All-A-Bama, explained in an article on the WHNT website that the program was created during the pandemic, “We found our families with developmental disabilities were becoming even more isolated and not traveling. Hotels clearly were empty because no one was traveling, so it was like ‘how do we marry these two groups of people together,’” Walker said. 

The newly opened Sesame Place San Diego was designed to be accessible and enjoyable for autistic children and adults as well as those with impaired mobility, according to a USA TODAY article. Every attraction has a sensory guide that details the level of sensory stimulation using a 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) rating scale and an accessibility guide that offers personalized lists and special access to rides for those who need accommodations. Additional accommodations include special parade viewing areas away from crowds and quiet rooms located throughout the park. 

As a certified autism center, the park also trains its characters on how to respond to guests, whether with the standard hug, a wave, or just standing nearby. To maintain its qualification as a certified autism center, the park must provide training to at least 80% of guest-facing staff so they better understand how to help autistic visitors have fun.  

An April New York Times article describes efforts by other vacation attractions, like museums and zoos, to offer adapted interactive experiences for those who have sensory-processing issues. Some venues are rearranging floor plans so there are quiet spaces for people to step out and look at exhibits away from crowds. At the Museum of the American Revolution, which includes exhibits that feature cannon noises and that smell and feel like being on a ship deck, for example, exhibit designers thought through how to accommodate visitors with sensory-processing issues. One way they do that is by giving guests guides they can use to tailor their experience. Another has been maps that highlight potentially triggering areas, such as spots with flashing lights, as well as places that are darker. 

Cultural institutions are also inviting people with special needs to serve on advisory panels so that museum staff can better understand what is needed in terms of renovation and design for new exhibits. 

Many cultural organizations, the Times article notes, learn from the Leadership Exchange for Arts and Disability conference, which aims to “inform all cultural and entertainment venues of new ways to include neurodivergent people.” About a decade ago it began including strategies for autistic people. The lesson, conference organizers said, is to listen to what autistic people and others with special needs say helps them enjoy an exhibit or activity. 


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