Autism-Friendly Airports, Hotels Offer Travel Accessibility
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Traveling with kids can be tricky. Traveling with kids with autism can be downright daunting. And with roughly 1 in 36 children on the autism spectrum in 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and rates rising significantly — a 318% increase since 2000 — the travel industry is taking notice.
Hotels in Concord began offering free “practice stays” for families with children with autism in December. San Francisco International Airport provides check-in and boarding “rehearsals.” San José’s airport gives sunflower lanyards to visitors who might need additional help from TSA or airline staff. And hotels around the world are changing practices to accommodate guests with autism and other sensory sensitivities and registering as autism-friendly destinations.
It makes sense, says Meredith Tekin, president of IBCCES, a Florida-based credentialing group for professionals who work with neurodivergent people. According to an IBCCES and Autism Travel survey, 77% of families grappling with autism are hesitant to travel or visit new locations, 87% don’t take family vacations, and 93% said they would travel more, if there were autism-friendly options available.
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Autism-friendly travel not only helps the neurodivergent community, Tekin says, it’s good for the travel industry, boosting visitor numbers, bookings and business overall.
“People want to go to places that are inclusive,” she says.
Just ask Elijah and Aileen German. Travel combines new environments, unfamiliar crowds and loud noises, which can trigger meltdowns for Eli, their 10-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum.
“It almost felt counterproductive, because we would plan a vacation to relax, but we would encounter more stress,” Elijah says. “That’s why having a staff that is trained and prepared to support families of autistic children is so helpful. You don’t feel judged.”
The Concord family of five has learned that gradual exposure is key. They show Eli their destination hotel online and find ways to connect the hotel to, say, his love of numbers upon arrival. They post room numbers on their doors at home, then ride the hotel elevator to different floors to count room numbers. It has helped. Eli began collecting key cards from the places his family stayed, and showing interest in the Hilton Concord when the family drove by.
So when the Germans saw that Visit Concord was offering free practice hotel stays to families of children with autism, and that the Hilton Concord was participating, they booked a stay for Eli’s birthday. Eli enjoyed the pool and the chance to practice traveling under friendly, accommodating circumstances.
“Travel in general can be difficult for kids on the spectrum,” Aileen German says. “Our kids don’t get over these things unless we keep exposing them.”
Funded by a $50,000 American Rescue Plan grant, the hotel program helps families, says Visit Concord spokesman Sheri Nelson, and gives hotels insight into the best ways to provide inclusive, accessible hospitality via early hotel check-in, for example, which reduces crowds and long lobby waits. Ground-floor guest rooms reduce the impact on other guests, the Germans say, when a child has a meltdown or needs to pace back and forth. And preparation and practice help, whether it’s a hotel stay, SFO’s Ready Set Fly program or San Jose’s occasional airport walk-throughs, which give travelers with disabilities a chance to rehearse everything from airport check-in to escalators.
Before doing the SFO session, “it was terrifying for me to think about flying with my son,” Aileen says. The pandemic sidelined the Ready Set Fly program, but in 2020 the airport partnered with MagnusCards on an SFO-specific app for families of those with disabilities, providing step-by-step directions for checking in and navigating the airport.
At airports from San Jose to London Heathrow, sunflower lanyards are available for travelers with hidden or less visible disabilities, offering a nonverbal signal to staff that the wearer may need extra help. In San Jose, 2,000 airport lanyards have been distributed since the program launched in 2020. It helps travelers, and airport staff appreciate the visual cue, says Scott Wintner, the airport’s deputy communications director, and the reminder that they may need to adjust their approach to accommodate the guest.
For the travel industry to better meet the needs of the autism community, each side needs to gain familiarity with the other, says Alan Day. There’s no one-sign-fits-all solution, so exposure is critical. Day’s Connecticut-based Autism Double-Checked trains hospitality staff and certifies hotels, resorts and airlines at levels ranging from “autism aware” to “autism ready,” teaching them about environmental triggers, such as food service issues, and teaching resort security what to do when a traveler with autism runs off — or “elopes,” in autism awareness parlance.
Meanwhile, families like the Germans are leaning into ways to expose Eli — and his sisters — to the joys of travel by taking advantage of those industry changes, the practice stays and airport tours, with hopes to encounter the compassion that autism awareness can bring. So before they go anywhere, Eli’s parents download his favorite movies, pack his noise-canceling headphones and make sure he’s wearing his Apple watch, so they can easily find him if he elopes.
And they pack “kind” kits — apology and thank-you goodies rolled into one — to give fellow travelers, like the woman seated next to Eli on a recent flight. She was studying for the Bar Exam, while Eli laughed and flapped his arms to express his excitement.
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