As the school year winds down and summer approaches, families begin to think of ways to keep their little ones engaged and entertained throughout the summer. Traveling with young learners on the autism spectrum can add a complex component to planning but it shouldn’t keep you from venturing out this summer and creating memorable experiences with loved ones.
Choosing a destination that is autism-friendly means taking into consideration factors that may impact the travel experience of a person with autism. These factors include:
- Crowd size
- Accessibility of activities
- Sensory overload potential (light, sound, touch, smell, and taste)
Thankfully, across the country, there are many experiences that offer accommodation to those with autism. These experiences range from venues like aquariums to larger scale amusement parks. Although destinations may be labeled “autism-friendly”, the tolerance levels for children on the spectrum are variable. It is important to consider your child’s tolerance levels for certain aspects of an environment to determine the right fit for you and your family.
Our Top 5 Picks for Autism-Friendly Travel
1. Mote Aquarium in Florida
If animals interest your child, zoos, and aquariums nationwide are great options. If you want to travel to the Southeast region of the US, we recommend the Mote Aquarium in Florida. The Mote Aquarium is an excellent option because it is welcoming and inclusive; it was designated an Autism Friendly Business by CARD at The University of South Florida. Here is why we love the Mote Aquarium:
- Sensory-friendly backpacks are available for checkout at the front desk. The backpacks contain ear protection, sunglasses, and fidget or stress toys
- Visual guides are available for families to decipher icons throughout the building.
- Sensory Saturday offers a calm and quiet environment with reduced lighting and noise levels to ensure everyone has a great time!
Learn more at Mote Aquarium
2. The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts
This is an excellent spot for learners with visual, hearing, physical, or sensory processing needs. The aquarium is certified as a trained and trusted advocate for individuals with sensory needs by Kulture City. Kulture City is the nation’s leading nonprofit for sensory accessibility. In addition to their in-house resources and accommodation, the aquarium has partnered with MagnusCards, a free app that helps people with special cognitive needs learn life skills. Features include:
- Tactile exhibits for sensory stimulation on every floor
- Sensory kits are available at the information desk
- Special early access mornings are offered to accommodate families.
- Aquarium decks provide step-by-step assistance to help individuals learn about the aquarium if requested
Details are available on the New England Aquarium website.
3. Sesame Place in Philadelphia, PA
If you have a Sesame Street lover and thrill seeker in the family, Sesame Place is an excellent option to visit. Sesame Place recently partnered with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) to become the first theme park designated as a Certified Autism Center. The park offers:
- Ride Accessibility Program (RAP) matches guests’ abilities with the requirements for certain rides. Enrolling in the program is as simple as filling out a questionnaire, and the ride manufacturer will evaluate the physical and mental attributes needed to ride each ride. Guests registered in the RAP may be eligible for priority boarding on attractions.
- Quiet rooms are designed for guests needing quiet or time away from sensory stimulation. The rooms also provide adjustable lighting and comfortable seating for the guests.
- Noise-canceling headphones. The headphones on site are called WhispEars, which can be used throughout the park to make their experience more enjoyable.
- Lastly, the park provides sensory-friendly accommodations. They help point guests to less populated areas that are generally quieter and offer assistance for parkgoers who want to enjoy the parade without direct character interactions.
More details, including Sensory Guide and Ride Accessibility Program available on their website: Sesame Place
4. Royal Caribbean International Autism on the Seas
Since 2007, Royal Caribbean International has worked to develop cruise vacation services to accommodate adults and families living with children with Special Needs, including, but not limited to, Autism, Asperger Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Tourette Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and all Cognitive, Intellectual, and Developmental Disabilities. A great benefit of being on the cruise ship is that it allows for flexibility in families’ schedules and routines. You can fill your morning with exciting interactions on the ship and return to your stateroom for downtime. This cruise line offers an autism-friendly initiative for families living with autism. This includes:
- Sensory-friendly activities such as films and toys for families.
- Dietary menu options for those who need special accommodations.
- Autism-friendly training for staff to enhance the customer experience.
- Cruising social story, a written and visual guide describing different social interactions, situations, or concepts that can help prepare learners for what will happen on the cruise vacation.
- Priority check-in, boarding, and departure along with flexible grouping based on the ability of the child ranging from ages 3 to 11 in the adventure ocean club.
Information on Autism on the Seas can be found on their website
5. AMC Theaters Sensory Friendly Movie on the Big Screen
If staying local is more your speed, look as far as your local AMC movie theater. AMC has partnered with the Autism Society to offer movie showings that are accommodated for sensory-sensitive individuals. Accommodations include:
- The lights can be turned up
- The sound can be lowered.
- The program is available for family-friendly showings on the second and fourth Saturday and Wednesday evenings for mature audiences.
Participating theaters range across the United States, with theaters in Boston, Birmingham, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, and many more. You can check for the closest theater on the AMC Theaters website
Travel Tips for Kids with Autism
Travel can be unpredictable and daunting but if you stay consistent it can be achievable. It is important for families to maintain as much consistency in their child’s daily routine, even on vacation. Adhering to bedtimes and mealtimes, while away can help with time away. The day’s activities and outings should be carefully planned and include breaks and necessary accommodations. Finding activities that can be done in the morning is an excellent option for families needing a midday break. Think about your routine and build a plan that honors those rituals you have established at home.
Summer 2023 is quickly approaching, and planning a family vacation can be an exciting opportunity to create memorable moments for you and your loved ones. No matter your family’s interests, there are activities for everyone throughout the country. Although traveling with young learners on the spectrum can add an extra complex component, with proper planning and proper accommodations, the possibilities are endless. Summer fun starts with embracing exploration. Luckily, many fantastic opportunities exist for autism-friendly vacations on every budget.