As National Autism Awareness Month comes to a close, don’t let the calendar turn without taking a hard look at a large market – and one that truly needs the help of a good travel agent.
One in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls), more than 3.5 million Americans, are affected by autism – and “quite often, a child’s autism keeps the entire family from ever taking a vacation,” Autism Speaks spokesperson Aurelia Grayson told TMR.
For agents, it’s important to know some of the companies that go out of their way to accommodate individuals with autism and their families, and programs that are available to enhance those travel experiences.
In the air
Autism Speaks, a nonprofit dedicated to “promotion solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the life span” for individuals with autism and their families, has partnered with JetBlue to organize its own program designed to prepare families for a full airport experience without risking missing a flight.
Called “Blue Horizons for Autism,” the program gives children, teens and young adults with autism and their families an opportunity to practice a complete airport experience. Families have the opportunity to check in, wait at the gate, board a plane and then taxi around the runaway on a jet as a flight crew makes announcements and passes out snacks.
Grayson said the events are completely booked each and every year. “Of the three events I’ve attended, only one child didn’t board, but he came back the next year and succeeded. It is always an uplifting day,” she said. The next [program will be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 17.
ARC, a community-based organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, runs a similar program with the TSA, called Wings for Autism, that also gives families a less-pressured airport practice run. Events are run all year in airports around the country. A full schedule is available on the ARC website.
On the seas
At sea, both Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises offer “autism-friendly programs” designed that sensory-related toys, autism-friendly youth activities and movies, priority boarding and special dietary offerings. Royal Caribbean also offers industry-first, on-demand content from the Autism Channel onboard most of its ships.
“We know that the disability market is important. We dedicated a team to this market and build our ships with the best hardware possible for our guests with disabilities,” said Royal Caribbean’s director of disability inclusion and ADA compliance Ron Pettit. “The whole idea is that they are coming to a warm and welcoming environment and there are opportunities for a respite for the parents, who can drop the children off with the Autism on the Seas staff or at the kids club,” he said. All guests with developmental disabilities are welcome, not just those on the autism spectrum.
Through a partnership with travel agency Autism on the Seas, Royal Caribbean also sails “staffed cruises” that bring extra staff onboard, for a 3:1 guest-to-staff ratio; 18 will be offered in 2017 and 23 in 2018. The full schedule is available on its website.
Pettit credited the program, the first in the industry, with attracting four to six million potential new guests.
(For more on this topic, come hear Petit speak at the “How You Can Help Disabled Travelers and Your Business” session at TMR’s Travel Marketplace Conference on June 13.)
And in Orlando
Disney Parks and Resorts has long been an advocate for the autism market. Among other things, it provides a Disability Access Service pass (DAS) on a case-by-case basis to make appointments to visit the attractions.
The Disney website also hosts a resource guide that provides information on trip planning strategies, transportation and getting around, break areas within the theme parks, and where families can find gluten-free or other special meals. A checklist for families affected by autism offers a step-by-step guides to what to expect, what to bring and what to know before you go.
Requests for a comment for this story by Disney were not returned by press time.