Travel is for Everyone: Why I Specialize in Travel with Autism
I’ve always been interested in traveling. I grew up in the U.S. Air Force and I’ve literally been traveling and moving around the world my whole life. I didn’t know that my enlistment in the U.S. Air Force would ultimately lead me to a career in travel.
During my time in the U.S. Air Force, I worked as an IT person, which in the Air Force is code for a person that does all the additional duties that no one else wants to do. One of those duties on top of fixing computers was booking official travel for Airmen.
I used the very clunky and ancient Defense Travel System (DTS). In a lot of ways, it reminds me of booking inside of a GDS, only less user-friendly. I enjoyed booking official travel and while it's not at all the same as leisure travel it was a lot more interesting to me than fixing computers.
Several years of working in DTS, separating from the U.S. Air Force, two babies, and a photography degree later, I moved from Hawai’i to Colorado and was trying to find myself after being unemployed for 4 years. I was ready to do something for myself. I started my travel business, Lily and Magnolia Travel, selling mostly Disney and Hawai’i vacations.
Then my oldest son was diagnosed with autism.
Pivoting My Niche to Focus on Autism Travel
In that moment everything changed. I started to believe our travels were over. His autism diagnosis seemed like the end of everything I wanted. That was until I began to see how much my son and I shared when we did travel. Our travel experiences were joyful despite challenges . . . challenges that could have easily been met with grace and understanding.
If I can still cultivate joyful travel experiences with my son then we can still travel the world with some pre-planning and accommodations in place.
My oldest son loved going on vacation and would plan trips for us such as going to Washington D.C. (still working on that one) and his dream trip to Tulum to see the Mayan Ruins. He spoke fondly about a trip we took to Tokyo and visited Meiji Jinga when he took the washing cup to wash other visitors’ hands for them before they entered the temple. The monks at the temple had a laugh watching my son “purify” the other visitors. If I can and could still cultivate joyful travel experiences with my son then we can still travel the world with some pre-planning and accommodations in place.
I realized that if I struggled with the lack of what is out there for autistic travelers, then other autistic families must struggle as well.
I realized that if I struggled with the lack of what is out there for autistic travelers, then other autistic families must struggle as well. I shifted my business to support families that are like mine to empower them to go on vacation too. I wanted to make this planning and booking process a little easier, especially when these families travel to places with no autism acceptance or support.
Resources to Become a Certified Autism Travel Specialist
As I began my research into travel with an autistic child I quickly learned there isn’t a lot out there. I became a Certified Autism Travel Professional™ (CATP) through the International Board of Creditionally and Continuing Education. I also found another certification with Autism Double Checked and became certified through them. Both of these organizations offer training for travel advisors and other tourism suppliers to better serve the travelers they work for. During the certification process with both programs, I found that there was a bit more prep work than working with a typical family.
For example, some of the training noted providing videos to prep for travel, some simple things like working with the child’s occupational therapist to model prepping for travel. They also went over ways to address real fears about travel and how to work with a family that’s embarking on their first journey to make travel a little easier.
Simple Accommodations for Autistic Travelers
I’ve learned along the way from speaking to autistic adults, my son, and the clients I’ve worked with that there are some really simple accommodations that can be implemented to make an autistic person’s trip enjoyable.
For starters, creating a space that is a sensory room is almost a must. Someplace quiet with lowlights to escape to when crowds are too much or there is too much stimulation etc. When we are at a hotel, I’ll personally close all the window blinds, play soft music from my phone. I pack him a toy light-up salamander. I cocoon my son in blankets so he can look at the blinding salamander to calm down. It’s a really simple method for soothing him and when he is calm we can go back to some quieter fun. I always plan an alternative or stay in the room.
An organization doing a lot of this work is Kulture City, which has been slowly adding sensory rooms at airports, libraries, and close to 550 places around the U.S. Additionally, there are some common sense things such as accommodating requests to be placed at a quieter table of a restaurant/hotel/tour group, etc. Supplying safety items in rooms such as door alarms for children that are prone to elopement (elopement is when a child with autism wanders away from caregivers or secure locations) including:
- Socket covers
- Non-fragile items in the hotel room
- Edge protection on sharp-edged furniture
- Lifeguards at pools (and if that is not possible, then require key cards for access to pools.)
- Security at the hotel in the case a child does elope
- A safety program to identify a child with autism (you can do this yourself by using the Angel Sense GPS or medical temporary tattoos.)
With my son, I’ve quickly learned what support programs are available to us while we travel. I speak with him in advance about our trips, most of the time, and share point-of-view videos with him so he becomes familiar with the destination. I heavily involve him in the planning, so he’ll feel invested in our trip. During a trip to Walt Disney World, I asked him to pick all the rides that we were going to ride. I made a Canva document with the rides he picked and printed it off so he could check off all the rides we did while we were there.
Steps Travel Advisors Can Take To Support Autistic Travelers
The biggest thing I’ve run across since I’ve started this research is a lack of knowledge about autism. Or suppliers may have a program but they say they get so few guests with autism that the program is little more than an afterthought.
If an autistic family doesn’t know about available support programs and accommodations how can they be used?
I think what’s most important here is that tourism suppliers aren’t promoting the fact that they provide these programs. It feels like an afterthought because of lower participation numbers. I understand that for more use to be made of these programs they have to be used. Yet, I’ve come to realize that if an autistic family doesn’t know about available support programs and accommodations how can they be used?
Time and again I’ve had families express hesitation about planning a trip because of a lack of support while traveling. I know there are suppliers like Beaches, Walt Disney World, and SeaWorld—that offer great programs, but if there is support in place I believe it should be promoted.
For tourism suppliers who are truly inclusive and want to become better for ALL of their travelers, reaching out to the IBCCES or Autism Double Checked to get training for their team is a must. There are annual requirements that will make sure they continue to develop their understanding of autism so they can make accommodations, for example, a sensory-friendly slower-paced tour that allows travelers to have more time to enjoy the tour.
Caregiver Support for Autism Travel
When my son was diagnosed with autism, like most I began looking for support because I felt like I was drowning in a sea of information, therapies, terminology, and medical insurance bureaucracy.
Through these support groups, I began to see the challenges that others faced, from how to pack perishable meals or snacks if your child only eats certain foods to the logistics of hiring a traveling respite care provider, the fear of traveling period, now with the pandemic tolerance of masks, how their child would be able to handle traveling and the real fear of a lost child due to them eloping. In these groups, I began to see that the travel and tourism industry, despite efforts, had a long way to go as far as inclusive travel went.
When I began to send clients to places that had no support, I started calling hotels and tour operators to make accommodations, such as a gentler sensory tour or making sure a fridge could be in the room for their child’s food.
Autism Advocacy in Action
Since I've pivoted my niche, I’ve worked with one family in particular that made me feel I’m on the right path. The mom reached out to me very nervous about traveling with her 3 year-old autistic daughter. The mother had never flown with her non-speaking daughter and she was worried about how she’d handle the sensory overload of an airport and comply with mask mandates. I explained to her how I could support her family. I’d ensure she was signed up for support such as TSA Cares to help at the airport, work with the airline for a mask exemption for her daughter, and take care of the steps to pack food for her daughter in her luggage. The relief on the mother’s face made this pivot all the more worth it.
These are barriers we parents of autistic children have to think about. Removing those barriers, witnessing her relief, and getting a message from her as soon as they landed telling me the food remained frozen in her luggage and that her daughter slept during most of the flight felt amazing.
I don’t honestly know if any of my pre-planning with clients will ultimately work. If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism. Whatever I suggest is impacted by a variety of factors that are completely out of my control. I try my best with what I’ve learned and encountered in incorporating new strategies when they work out like this did.
In the end, I want to learn as much as I can about how I can make my son comfortable during our travels together. He is growing up so fast and I want to create memories with him and his younger brother. Memories to help answer his questions about the world, explore his curiosity, and bond through shared world experiences and exploration.
We have connected and learned so much from each other when we are removed from everyday distractions. My son has grown leaps and bounds by traveling the world—from learning to become his self-advocate, communicating, and blossoming into his own person— and I love the gift that travel has given us to unlock all of these things about him.
I am a Certified Autism Travel Professional. I help families with autism navigate the unique challenges that arise during travel. My goal is to create unforgettable autism-friendly vacations, so you can travel the world and spend precious time with your family.
( Learn more about Dina on her travel agency website, Lily and Magnolia Travel!)