How the world is changing for travelers with autism

Wanderlust doesn’t discriminate. It creeps up on lifelong homebodies, blossoms in the hearts of grumpy teenagers and pushes those who “can’t afford it” out the door, bank accounts be damned.

Because traveling the world is for everyone that means that none of us should be surprised to hear that those on the autism spectrum get itchy feet, too.

When thinking about travel it’s important to understand that autism isn’t a monolithic diagnosis. “Autism is a diverse disability and everyone’s needs are different,” says Zoe Gross, director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

Autism, as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is “a developmental disability that causes social communication and behavioral challenges.” An estimated one in 68 children are affected, with the rate higher in boys than girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Depending on personality, where they are on the autism spectrum, and how their particular disability manifests, each autistic traveler will have different needs and challenges. Some might be physical, others might be cognitive, or a mix of the two.

Examples include trouble dealing with unexpected routine changes; finding acceptable food; sensory issues with loud spaces or bright lights; and physical disabilities from minor to significant.

“Travel with service animals might be hard especially in other countries where they have different rules for animals,” says Gross. And of course, just like anyone, autistic travelers will have varying interests, passions and bucket-lists.

Travel can be especially onerous for people on the spectrum — but it can be especially enriching, too.

Making the world more connected

“Travel is often topic-oriented, so, for example, if someone is interested in history and historical sites and they have difficulty with abstraction, seeing what they’ve learned about in real life can be really meaningful and rewarding,” says Gross. “For someone who enjoys languages, which some autistic people do, that can be exciting too,” she says.

Even though new experiences and routines can be tough to navigate, autistic travelers might find the planning and organizing aspect of a trip to be really enjoyable, in a way that most others might find annoying or tiresome.

Another foreign travel benefit: It can be particularly relaxing to those autistic people who find navigating their own culture exhausting.

Jennifer Malia is an English professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia who writes and publishes stories as Mom with Autism. She traveled both before and since her diagnosis with autism spectrum disorder, and she says she often feels more comfortable abroad than at home.

“No one expects you to be completely familiar with cultural norms or to speak perfectly in foreign languages when you’re abroad,” says Malia. “This made it easier for me to communicate as an autistic woman.”

Gross backs up the idea: “Some countries have easier cultural norms for people with autism. You can relax, because if you need several tries to understand something, people understand because you’re a tourist.”

With some minor adjustments, museums, hotels, flying, and even activities can be enjoyed by adults and kids on the autism spectrum. See below for some of the smartest ideas:

Flying

The tight spaces, strange noises, and general unpleasantness of flying can be a perfect storm for those with an autism spectrum disorders.

It doesn’t help that the general public can perceive common autistic behaviors to deal with that discomfort (like hand-flapping, vocalizations or pacing) as dangerous or disruptive. In 2015 a United Airlines plane was diverted and parents traveling with their 15-year-old autistic daughter were kicked off a flight. Flying is a particular challenge as it’s not really something that can be understood or practiced in advance, which is one of the best ways for autistic people to prepare for new situations.

That’s why for the past four years, Autism Speaks has worked with JetBlue on Blue Horizons for Autism, a travel program that allows people with autism to practice the full airport experience.

“At Blue Horizons events, we work with JetBlue, TSA and airport personnel to make the experience as realistic as possible. Guests check in at the ticket counter, receive real boarding passes with seat assignments, and go through the full TSA security screening where all of the usual rules apply,” says Alexandra Watters, director of family services projects and content at Autism Speaks.

Practice boarding the plane and even taxiing around the tarmac helps autistic travelers work through their particular challenges, with trained airline employees and volunteers on hand to help. More than 3,000 people in 11 cities have already participated, with more planned for the fall.

The TSA also has a separate program, Wings for Autism, that is similar — a run-through that focuses on the oft-disturbing security protocols and travel too.

Museums

Museums can be particularly interesting to autistic people for the variety of learning opportunities they can provide: “in a museum, learning can be verbal or nonverbal; hands-on or hands-off; fast or slow; social or solitary; loud or quiet; directed or inquiry-based.

“In a museum, lack of verbal skills need not stand in the way of discovery, learning, or passion. Lack of social skills need not stand in the way of achievement,” writes Lisa Jo Rudy on the Autism in the Museum blog, a “clearinghouse of best practices […] about making museums welcoming and inclusive for people with autism and their families.”

Some museums provide prep and sensory-specific details for attendees with autism, such as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has six social narratives for visits. These are “printouts written in simple languages with pictures that list out the steps for visiting […] so people can look at it and practice it in their heads,” says Gross.

The Met also provides a sensory map that shows busier and quieter areas, displays with low-light and areas with natural light, all superimposed over a map of exhibits. Preparing in advance means fewer surprises about lights and sounds, knowledge of quiet spots, and a better experience.

Many other museums provide similar details, or have special programs, like the Dallas Museum of Art, the Intrepid Museum, the Boston Children’s Museum and more.

Places to stay

Independent travel agents such as ASD Vacations, A Million Senses, and The Guided Tour specialize in hotels for autistic people or parents with kids on the autism spectrum. They can be a great resource since agents are familiar with floor plans, resort or hotel amenities, types of rooms, and will be more able to answer specific questions.

Some resorts welcome autistic travelers specifically: Tradewinds Resort in St. Petersburg, Florida is one of five that has been designated “autism friendly” by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). To qualify, employees underwent CARD’s training program. Beaches resorts, with locations throughout the Caribbean, also offer families with children with autism specialized activities, services and custom dining options via their autism-friendly kids’ camps.

Launched in June 2015, Accomable is an Airbnb-style service for people with disabilities of all kinds. The cofounder of the site, Srin Madipalli, loved to travel but, as a wheelchair-user, he hated how much prep work he had to do to ensure he would be able to access places to stay.

The site now has more than 1,000 listings in more than 60 countries, all searchable by price, location, type of space and accessibility. “I want our users to have a wide range of genuine choices and be able to build any kind of travel experience they want, irrespective of their background or physical ability,” says Madipalli. Though its searchable features focus on physical disability, not sensory sensitivities — it’s not built specifically for autistic people — they or their caregivers could find it useful depending on needs.

Theme parks

While they can be high-stimulation, which some with autism seek to avoid, plenty of autistic kids and kids-at-heart have a theme park high on their travel wish-lists: A number have programs to make the long days a little easier for both adults and children.

Disney is seen as a leader: Their parks and resorts have a comprehensive program that includes attraction details with information about lights, sounds, smells, bumps and surprises; special assistance to those with light and sound sensitivity; passes so there’s less standing on line; and dozens of break areas in the parks.

Great America and Six Flags parks also have skip-the-line ticketing and other assistance, and the latter’s Great Escape location also has an Autism Awareness Day (actually multiple days).

Legoland in Florida has worked with Autism Speaks to be super-supportive of sensory challenges, and every staff member has been trained to understand special needs.

Some smaller parks, such as the shady, nature-filled Dollywood in Tennessee, are a less hectic choice generally, and they also have a calming room on-site, and railroad-themed Edaville Family Theme Park (an hour outside Boston), has a specially designed quiet bathroom and other amenities.

Cruises

Autism on the Seas has been working with Royal Caribbean International since 2007. They specially staff cruises throughout the year on popular lines including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Disney and Carnival Cruise Lines.

In addition to being able to board early, educated, trained, and background-checked staff accompany cruisers and allow guests to use the ship’s facilities and entertainments in an “accommodated and assisted manner.” They also have lower-touch programs available for more experienced or independent travelers.

Other fun stuff

Since 2007, AMC Theatres has offered their Sensory-Friendly Films events at more than 50 theaters across the United States, where, their site promises: “we turn the lights up, and turn the sound down, so you can get up, dance, walk, shout or sing!” Family-friendly film nights are held on the second and fourth Saturday each month and there are Tuesday evening showings for mature audiences.

Like to ski? At Copper Mountain Resort in Breckenridge, Colorado, autistic kids can try an adaptive skiing lesson, which includes equipment rental and a lift ticket.

Some golf and swim centers also have similar programs. Adults and kids can decorate ceramics at autism painting events that are designed for smaller groups and feature lower lights. You can check out other ideas at the Autism Friendly Events page at Autism Speaks, which includes events in many cities throughout the US.

“Normally, I crave routines and like to know what to expect, so sometimes it’s difficult to have the courage to travel somewhere new without knowing what it will be like,” says Malia. The travel bug doesn’t care what you look like or about what other people think of your choices — when it bites, you’re bitten.

Malia loves seeing the world, having gone on safari in Kenya, hiked a Costa Rican rainforest and snorkeled with sharks in the United Arab Emirates. And now other travelers like her have a little extra assistance to go even further.