For some, it’s in the family. For others, it’s a labor of love. And for yet others, it’s just plain good business. But whatever their motivation, travel agents who specialize in helping families traveling with someone with autism tell TMR that it’s a fulfilling, interesting, and growing niche.
“I have some limitations of my own — I’m blind in one eye and deaf in one ear — and I grew up hearing a lot of ‘you can’t,’” says Vicky Spencer Rouse, owner of Special Needs Vacation by V in Louisville, Kentucky, with a laugh. “Plus, my mom had Parkinson’s disease and I adopted three special needs children, so we had hyper and Parkinson’s traveling together. But I believe that if you say you can do it, I’ll help you get it done.”
Nicole Thibault, meanwhile, came to the niche naturally. The mother of two boys on the autism spectrum, she often heard members of her Mommy and Me group say they “once were big travelers, but after they had children with autism, they didn’t travel any more. And I thought, that’s so sad, that the people who need a vacation the most don’t get one.”
With six years of experience as a travel agent working for others, in 2016, Thibault started Magical Storybook Travels in Fairport, New York. Today, 75 percent of her clients have some kind of special need, and her business has branched into pre-travel counseling (including providing YouTube videos of hotel rooms and cruise ship decks, and making a list of the biggest stressors they expect and how to deal with them), as well as producing her own videos and social stories.
She has done a line of videos covering topics such as what to do if you get lost, how to ask for help, dining out, and the Kids’ Club — for Tradewinds, Universal Studios and Legoland, and she said she is working on SeaWorld.
At Counting the Days Travel in Vidalia, Georgia, Owner Debbi Kay just last month completed the Certified Autism Travel Professional program. Touched by a friend with an autistic child, “I could imagine what travel was like not just for the child, but for the caregiver.” Her heart and her brain both agreed it was a good niche to focus on of traveling families who needed extra help.
According to IBCCES, the training lasts four hours and requires a renewal every year.
But she already has her first customer, most likely headed to Beaches Turks and Caicos. “I am wedding-certified through Sandals, and I feel like Sandals sets the bar for all-inclusives in many ways,” she said. In preparation, she also is recommending her clients attend the Wings for Autism program at Atlanta airport, where she will be working as a volunteer, on Apr. 11; she notes parents can go to The Arc to sign up for programs being given in April and May in Charlotte; Houston; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Appleton, Wisconsin.
Kimberley Porter, independent travel advisor for Travel Leaders in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, says she was hired specifically because of her background in the autism travel niche, for which she intends to pursue certification.
Give extra attention
A former Disney cast member with two children on the autism spectrum, Porter helped guests attending the Food and Wine Festival “plan the best days and times, and I pretty much stayed at every single resort, including Disney Destinations.” As chance would have it, she was eating at an Epcot restaurant one night when a Travel Leaders advisor overheard her giving detailed advice to the couple sitting at the next table. “She said I’d make a really good travel agent, and I ended up talking with Annette Youngbauer at Travel Leaders and went from there.”
When traveling with children on the autism spectrum, Porter said, “It’s incredibly overwhelming to try to avoid all the obstacles that might cause meltdowns and problems. By contacting a travel agent who has experience in special needs travel, you get a planner to help you make phone calls, someone who has invested in the programs, and who understands what the sensory challenges are. Instead of the parents being overwhelmed when they get there, everyone can begin to enjoy their vacation.”
“A travel agent has the contacts at the resorts and cruise lines to give them a heads up to put things in place ahead of time,” agreed Teresa Shields, co-owner of Engage Vacations in Round Rock, Texas. "Having that experience to lean on, and getting extra attention and a wide variety of suggestions to make sure the kids are comfortable and having a good time, and the parents’ minds are at ease, is priceless. Especially when you don’t pay more for it.”
Focus on the caregiver
But if there is a common theme to all the conversations TMR had with this emerging breed of special needs travel consultants, it is that helping the caregiver is as important as helping the person who needs the extra care.
Kay reports that when she recently asked the parents at her autism support group, “What’s the one thing you would wish for?” The answer was “just a break where they can get some respite and say everyone is having a good time.”
One agent told of how she was cutting up her autistic son’s dinner on a cruise when the waiter took away the plate and said, “Absolutely not, you are on vacation; let us do this for you.”
“Parents of special needs children need that time to refresh and unwind; having a travel agent to point us to a theme park or resort whose staff can pick up on those cues and make sure the mom is enjoying herself, too, is priceless,” Kay said.
Working with families of autistic children “is not just taking an order,” said Thiebault. “It takes a lot of time and dedication to work with someone who needs extra help. But the feeling you get from helping someone is huge.”
And it’s good business. “If you haven’t had a client [with special needs] yet, it’s just a matter of time before you will,” she said. “If you can be prepared, it’s a really wonderful thing to add to your resume.”