Travelling with a child on the autism spectrum can be unpredictable. My autistic son has bolted out of public spaces after seeing or hearing something that frightened him. In the middle of both a ski run and a jungle hike, Bennett, 10, has gone on strike and refused to budge after something upset him. And he has had tantrums high in the stratosphere after take off—not to mention before we've even left our hometown, in airport security lines.
Yet we keep travelling—and it keeps getting easier. Not only are we figuring out how to travel with a kid on the spectrum, but the world is changing too to make this easier for families like ours. More airports, attractions, hotels, resorts, cruises and destinations are starting to offer programs or services that accommodate children with diverse abilities. Here are a dozen to check out, as you plan your next vacation.
1. Vancouver International Airport Vancouverites can sign their kids up for the I CAN Fly program with the Canucks Autism Network that includes a resource kit and video series to help families prepare for trips by covering the pre-flight process. Families can also get a YVR Autism Access Sticker for boarding passes that provides expedited access through screening and US Customs. And every fall, both the Vancouver and Kelowna airports offer accessibility tours where families travelling with someone on the spectrum can visit in person and practice the entire check-in process, from entering the airport to waiting in line, passing through security and boarding a plane.
2. Shannon Airport, Ireland Last spring, Shannon Airport became Europe’s first airport with a sensory room developed for kids and adults with neurodevelopmental challenges, such as autism. Located off the departure lounge, the room is designed as a calming pre-flight space complete with an aquatic bubble tube, an undulating wavy wall, colour-changing LED lights and a wheel projector.
3. Disney theme parks, various international locations Disney’s theme parks offer a range of services for guests with cognitive, mobility, visual and hearing disabilities. For example, for visitors with autism, the Disability Access Service lets families schedule a return time to board a ride to avoid waiting in lines. The resorts also have an online guide for guests with cognitive disabilities, that highlights which rides might be over-stimulating (flashing lights, loud noises or scents or smells) and options for a quiet zone if the child needs a sensory break.
4. Morgan’s Wonderland, Texas, USA This theme park in San Antonio, Texas is the world’s first amusement park designed to be fully accessible for people with special needs (and admission is free for those with a disability). Everything is wheelchair accessible including rides, playgrounds and a water park. There’s an indoor Sensory Village that encourages creative play, a wharf for catch-and-release fishing, and a giant sand play area and an outdoor music play area for sensory play.
5. Hotel Port-Aux-Basques, NL With a sensory room featuring a swing, climbing wall, inflatable bag chair, mat flooring and dimmed lighting to help kids either calm down or burn off energy, this hotel on the south-western tip of The Rock bills itself as autism friendly. To help families with a child on the spectrum feel safe while travelling, the hotel has also modified one of its guest rooms by placing the chain lock higher on the door to prevent wanderers from escaping after lights out.
6. Beaches Resorts, the Caribbean These all-inclusive family resorts run the Caribbean’s first autism-friendly kids’ camps. Childcare staff has received their autism certification that includes training in sensory awareness, motor skills, social skills, communication and emotional awareness related to the neurological condition. Staff will work with parents to customize programming (and even meals) so all children can participate. If your kid needs more one-on-one care, that’s also an option.
7. West Coast ski slopes, various resorts Sign your child up for a BC Adaptive Snowsports membership, and hit the snowy slopes. Ski areas such as Fernie Alpine Resort in south-eastern B.C., Big White Ski Resort and SilverStar Mountain Resort near Kelowna, and Whistler/Blackcomb near Vancouver, offer adaptive ski or snowboard lessons for kids with cognitive or physical disabilities. You can sign up your child for regular weekly lessons if you live in the area, or they can ski or ride as a visitor if your holiday takes you out west, for minimal cost (many of the programs are volunteer-run). Alberta offers a similar program through Rocky Mountain Adaptive, in the Bow Valley.
8. Smugglers’ Notch Resort, Vermont, USA This family-friendly Vermont resort offers adaptive ski programs for kids with autism or other disabilities. Come summers, families can organize horseback riding, hiking, kayaking and even one-on-one swimming lessons for their child with special needs.
9. Royal Caribbean, various destinations It’s smooth sailing with Royal Caribbean for families living with autism, Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities. All cruise ships offer sensory friendly films and toys, menu options for special diets (for example, gluten-free), and autism training for staff. In addition, Royal Caribbean’s Autism on the Seas program features special group sailings where ships are staffed with professionals who can offer respite, and private activities and sessions for kids on the spectrum, so parents can have a break.
10. Norwegian Cruise Line, various destinations In addition to allowing service dogs on board, Norwegian Cruise Lines has special assistance coordinators that can help families plan their trip prior to setting foot on the ship. Once at sea, that same team will try and solve any issues that arise for guests with mobility, hearing, vision or other challenges.
11. Myrtle Beach This South Carolina beach city, along with Surfside Beach just down the coast, was named the first autism-friendly city in the United States in 2016. Thanks to the Autism Community Education program, created by a resident whose son has autism, local hotels, restaurants and tour operators have been trained in catering to and including families affected by autism. This means these families can skip the line at attractions or get seated in a quieter area of a restaurant (and ask for their meal to be fast-tracked), for example. To take advantage of these services families need to get a free CAN Card to show participating businesses.
12. San Diego For some children on the spectrum (my son included), it doesn’t get much better than miles of sandy beaches and attractions where animals are No. 1. San Diego is tops in this department, boasting over 25 beaches (one of which rents out an electric beach chair so visitors with mobility challenges can take long ‘strolls’) and both the San Diego Zoo and nearby San Diego Zoo Safari Park. These two attractions also offer wheelchair and scooter rentals, allow service dogs, and have plenty of tranquil rest stops where sensitive kids can go to decompress.