For many parents, coming up with new family vacation ideas is an exciting mix of planning and dreaming. Yet for families traveling with someone on the autism spectrum, planning autism-friendly vacations away from home can also be daunting, especially when those vacation plans will dramatically alter everyone’s daily routines.
Fortunately, the travel and hospitality industry is better prepared to help families with autistic children today than ever before. “Many locations are offering some sort of inclusive option or are aware that they may need to cater to guests with special requests,” says Joel Ryan, Group Director Themed Entertainment and Children’s Programs for Beaches Resorts.
Hotels and resorts, including Beaches, are increasingly creating programs and training staff to be aware of any needs guests may have as part of becoming a Certified Autism Center. Many water parks, theme parks, museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums are also committing to a certification program that goes above and beyond “autism-friendly” to fully credentialed programming.
Travel providers that obtain certification through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) ensure that there are measures in place to serve this specialized community as well as those with sensory sensitivities. “Staff receive in-depth education on autism sensitivity and awareness, centered on communication, motor skills, social skills, environment awareness, emotional awareness, bullying, early childhood identification, [and] transition to adulthood,” notes Ryan.
Family groups that include an autistic child should consider whether a destination or resort is an IBCCES Certified Autism Center during the planning process, and be sure that wherever you go on vacation, it’s inclusive to all types of travelers and their needs. Here are a few places to start your search for autism-friendly vacations.
Autism-Friendly Vacations in U.S. Cities
Many cities across the U.S. now have programs in place to help travelers with sensory sensitivity.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach isn’t just one of the best family vacation spots in the U.S., it’s also one of the only destinations in the country to go autism-friendly throughout the entire city. Since 2018, the city has worked with local attractions and restaurants to find ways to assist traveling families with special needs.
One unique thing about Myrtle Beach is its CAN Card (short for Champion Autism Network). Travelers can request one of these cards at the Myrtle Beach Welcome Center, and it acts as a no-questions-asked pass for families at places where over-stimulation may be an issue. Families can use the CAN Card at crowded attractions to skip the line, get private seating or expedited service at a restaurant, and curbside check-in at hotels.
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Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Exploring Valley Forge often means touring historical sites and spending time outside. One of the best things to do for kids who love animals is visit the Elmwood Park Zoo, which is the first Certified Autism Center zoo in the entire world. And LEGOLAND Discovery Center Philadelphia in Plymouth Meeting offers dedicated sensory nights that include a reduction of music and lights in certain areas, quiet spaces, and reduced capacity.
Everything is bigger in Texas, including offerings for families with sensory needs. The Omni Houston Hotel offers a Kid’s Sensory Suite, where there’s a beach-themed bathroom, kids-sized robes, a chalkboard and chalk, books, games, an Xbox One, and more for your kids to wind down after exploring the city. There are also several Certified Autism Centers in Houston, including the Space Center Houston, which hosts sensory-friendly events throughout the year; and the Children’s Museum Houston, which has sensory-friendly days.
U.S. Attractions with Sensory Sensitive Programs
There are also hundreds of additional attractions in the U.S. that offer assistance for people with sensory sensitivity and autism.
The College Football Hall of Fame – Atlanta, Georgia
If you’re planning a trip to the Peach State, consider a stop at the College Football Hall of Fame. The destination has partnered with KultureCity to make the Hall more accessible and inclusive to all types of visitors. Each staff member is trained on how to recognize and interact with guests who have sensory sensitivities. Guests can also ask for a sensory bag, which includes noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, and verbal cue cards.
Aquatica Orlando – Orlando, Florida
At Aquatica Orlando, one of the most popular Orlando water parks, the entire staff has completed IBCCES certification around sensitivity and awareness. In fact, it’s the first water park in the world to receive a Certified Autism Center distinction from the organization.
Discovery Cove – Orlando, Florida
For families looking for a theme park and all-inclusive day wrapped in one, Discovery Cove is the place to be. The Certified Autism Center has quite a few offerings for guests with sensory issues. Before going to Discovery Cove, you can consult the park’s website for a sensory guide to all of the attractions. Kids who love animals will be able to interact with dolphins, swim with fish and rays, feed birds, and even start the day off with flamingos. The park offers a quiet room near first-aid if needed, but most of the time the beaches and lazy river are also a semi-quiet reprieve.
LEGOLAND New York – Goshen, New York
The newest LEGO-themed theme park will debut this year in New York. LEGOLAND New York will offer seven different themed lands and a new resort hotel. The on-site quiet rooms are where families and kids can decompress with dim lighting, tactile toys, and weighted blankets. The new theme park will offer a step-by-step fully illustrated walkthrough of each ride in the park, so no one will be surprised by darkness, loud noises, bright lights, or other effects that could be overwhelming.
Mount Vernon – Mount Vernon, Virginia
Consider stopping at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington and his wife, Martha, if you’re embarking on a family road trip this summer. The historic site offers sensory-friendly events where they lower the lights and audio and turn off the hand dryers. The on-site education specialists can also provide sensory-friendly interpretation for anyone in need of assistance.
Autism-Friendly Vacations Outside the U.S.
Families looking to vacation outside of the United States have attractive options for autism-friendly vacations as well.
Beaches is the first resort chain in the world to complete the IBCCES training and autism certification, meaning all of its staff is trained to interact and help families with kids who need more care. For the children, there are autism-friendly kids camps, custom dining options, and activities across the resort geared for different needs. Beaches has also partnered with Sesame Street for visits from Julia, the on-screen character with autism to help promote inclusiveness and diversity.
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Disney Cruise Line
While cruising might not be the first vacation option that comes to mind for kids with sensory issues, Disney Cruise Line is at the forefront of autism-friendly accommodations for families. For kids who can’t stand still during the muster drill, the entire family can check in with a Disney Cast Member at their station, and then only one adult needs to actually stay behind while the second adult and child with sensory sensitivity can return to their stateroom.
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Parents and kids are encouraged to explore the kids clubs together on embarkation day to allow kids with sensory needs to meet a few of the counselors and explore with a trusted adult. And as you prepare to set sail, you can speak with a Disney cruise specialist to address questions or concerns before your voyage, whether it’s your first cruise vacation or even if you’re a seasoned cruise traveler.
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This article about autism-friendly vacations was originally posted in April 2021. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.