The high percentage of parents with autistic children not taking family vacations reflects the travel industry's inability to largely address the needs of autistic travelers. Thus many travel companies have missed out on a lucrative travel market because of their inaction.
My 36-year-old younger sister Adia loves going on vacation during the summer with my mother, Nedina Jorden. There’s seemingly nothing out of the ordinary about that, but they’re part of an underrepresented and often unrecognized group: families traveling with autistic children.
Although travelers with special needs took on average 32 million trips annually prior to the pandemic, the vast majority of parents with an autistic child don’t take vacations — 87 percent, according to a survey conducted by the website Autism Travel. While numerous destinations are working to make themselves more welcoming to families with an autistic child, I’ve never looked at Adia’s autism as a barrier to going on a family vacation in the first place.
Getting to know Adia can be challenging because she has always been introverted and really doesn’t say much in conversations. However, she is independent in many ways, having held down the same job for 15 years at Wegman’s and frequently going on walks by herself in our neighborhood on pleasant days. And she discusses possible travel destinations with mom with whom she lives in New Jersey.
However, I haven’t traveled with Adia in quite a while, so I’m obviously not the most qualified person to speak about the challenges of traveling with her. Adia travels relatively often with mom, so she can articulately answer the question, “What is it like traveling with an autistic family member?”
It’s actually not too difficult. “Traveling with Adia is just like traveling with any other person because she happens to be high functioning,” mom said. “Mostly, she understands what we’re doing.”
But have there been moments during our family’s travels when Adia’s autism has caused problems? Mom doesn’t think so, but she said that Adia often gets frustrated when they get stuck in traffic. The destinations they have traveled to in recent years — Baltimore, Lake George, New York, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Ocean City, New Jersey — are within easy driving distance of our home in New Jersey.
While Adia’s autism may not have specifically caused problems for mom on the road, have staff at hotels and restaurants they’ve gone to during their travels experienced difficulties interacting with my younger sister?
That has been the case. “Her speech pattern can be difficult to understand for people who don’t know her,” mom said, adding that she has to remind Adia occasionally that restaurant workers understand her.
“There are times when she will want to do something and she would approach a hotel worker in a way that might be slightly aggressive.”
Obviously, hotel workers aren’t eager to deal with guests they consider aggressive. But mom told me she believes more awareness about autism could make experiences smoother for staff and autistic travelers. Although she has seen an increased awareness about autism, “There’s no way to know if staff is prepared for autistic people,” she said.
But as the number of children diagnosed as autistic in the United States has increased in recent years, more companies in the travel industry are taking steps to cater to autistic travelers. The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards — which certifies organizations from schools to hospitals in cognitive disorders — had worked with more than 100 travel providers on autism programs in the three years prior to the pandemic. President Meredith Tekin said the board went very quickly from getting no requests in the travel industry to dozens in a short period of time.
So how do hotels and resorts obtain I.B.C.C.E.S. certification? Eighty percent of staff members who interact with guests must undergo up to 21 hours of training in sensory awareness, communication and social skills. Those staff members who interact with guests must pass an exam demonstrating their understanding and be re-certified every other year. And the I.B.C.C.E.S. also conducts an on-site review to suggest changes to better assist autistic travelers.
Things to Be Aware Of
Mom has bits of advice for hotel staff workers who might have to interact with autistic guests, although those employees undergoing extensive training would seemingly be cognizant of them. “Just be aware that these people have what’s commonly called behaviors,” she said. “And not to think that this autistic person is a rude person.”
“It’s not like Down syndrome where you can see someone with (it). You wouldn’t necessarily know someone who is autistic by looking at them.”
In addition, mom recommends that hospitality staff also pay close attention to people’s eyes as autistic people often don’t make good eye contact. “That’s not necessarily the number one dead giveaway because there aren’t a lot of people who make good eye contact,” she said. “But a lot of people on the spectrum, you can see it in their eyes.”
While those above mentioned tips were meant for those working in hospitality, mom has an idea for parents of autistic children who love to travel: employing direct support professionals. It was a bit surprising when she suggested DSPs as being travel partners.
“If (Adia) were less functioning and she needed more guidance — (such as) a buddy to be with her, that would probably mean less going out of her comfort zone,” mom said when I asked how their travels would have been different if Adia weren’t high functioning.
But twice a week, Adia often goes to a nearby mall or a bowling alley with her DSP, whom mom considers a travel partner for my younger sister. “They just travel locally,” mom said. “It’s the same idea.”
Traveling By Plane
Although Adia hasn’t been on an airplane since a 2015 trip to New Orleans, my younger sister said she’d be open to flying more. While being in the skies hasn’t been difficult for her, airports and planes can be stressful and overwhelming places for autistic travelers, especially young children.
Fortunately, numerous airports have taken steps to help make air travel less stressful for autistic people. Pittsburgh International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, among others, have created dedicated spaces for travelers with autism and sensory sensitivities. The former airport is home to Presley’s Place, a 1,500-foot space that includes a replica of a jetway and interior of an airplane, that allows passengers to decompress and adjust to the experience of flying.
Those initiatives have represented part of an aviation industry push to help make air travel more accessible to autistic passengers. Kerry Mauger, a senior manager of The Arc — an organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that also runs a flight rehearsal program for autistic travelers — believes unfamiliar settings and routines can bring anxiety and fear for people with autism.
But does Adia find being in new environments stressful? Absolutely not. “She doesn’t mind leaving the area. She looks forward to it, in fact,” mom said. “For her, that’s not a problem.”
— Rashaad Jorden, a global traveler and Skift’s editorial assistant, covers travel agents and tour operators.
Photo credit: My younger sister Adia in Lake George, New York. Nedina Jorden