With 1 in 59 children diagnosed with autism in 2018 in the US alone, according to CDC, the need for autism-friendly accommodations is prevalent. Another survey conducted by Autism Travel further highlights the necessity for properties to meet this demand, with 97% of respondents indicating they are not satisfied with the current travel options available for families with autism.
This underserved market has specific needs, though, and understanding that is the key to tapping into the demographic and ensuring a great experience for all involved.
Preparation is key
For Alice Horn, CEO of VillaKey – the first vacation rental company to become certified in autism travel – the lightbulb moment came after recognising reviews from families with special needs. “It caught my attention because, particularly as a child, it was difficult for our family to travel because my dad was also on the spectrum.
“During a focus group, organised for me by the centre of autism-related disabilities at the University of Miami, it was confirmed that it’s an issue for these families to find a quiet, private and secure place to stay when travelling. All of these things add up to a perfect scenario for vacation rentals being able to help.”
Many people with autism don’t react well to change, so providing them with preparation material prior to their stay can help facilitate a smooth arrival. “If you’re a larger hotel, creating a visual guide or story can be helpful,” says Daniel Cadey, Autism Friendly Development Manager at the National Autistic Society. “This can include photos of the reception, lift, guest room – all the different touch points the guest will experience. If you’re a smaller property, it’s important to ensure that any images on your website are an actual representation of what you will be providing, so the guest knows what to expect.
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“And if there are any unexpected changes – such as a room swap – make sure that the guest is aware beforehand and help them to understand why that change is being made. It all comes down to preparing people beforehand.”
Along with a visual slideshow, Hotel Port aux Basques also sends a questionnaire to guests before arrival to determine where the guests sits on the autism spectrum and any triggers they may have. “It features questions such as is the guest sensitive to light? Or, what type of music don’t they like?,” says Cathy Lomond, Owner of Hotel Port aux Basques. “It’s all about making the environment as comfortable as possible for the guest; having this information before they arrive can make all the difference.”
Focusing on the details
Safety and security is one main concern for families travelling with children who have autism. By putting minor precautions in place, you can help guests to feel at ease. “We adapted our guest rooms by doing things like ensuring pictures were mounted to the wall, adding an additional chain lock to the doors and attaching safety locks on the drawers,” says Lomond. “Doing this wasn’t greatly time-consuming, nor was it expensive to convert the rooms to be autism-friendly.”
The hotel also boasts a sensory room – complete with a soothing mural, cocoon-like hammock, dim blue lighting and padded flooring – that provides travellers with sensitivities with a calming environment.
VillaKey’s Horn also takes similar details into account when scouting for new properties. “We look for homes that are in a quiet location and decorated in soothing colours. We ensure all of our pools are fenced, provide alarms on the doors to alert family members if they open, and use fragrance-free cleaning products.”
Often, people living with autism also have food allergies and special diets. While vacation rentals have the luxury of a fully-equipped kitchen, hotels may need to adapt their on-site restaurants. “People with autism are usually very visual and not as verbal,” says Lomond. “So, on our food and beverage menus, you’ll find pictures instead of words – allowing the guest to point and tell us exactly what they would like. We ensure what we serve matches the picture, this is something very important because you want to avoid surprises. For example, if the picture shows that the ice-cream comes in a red bowl, we make sure that’s how they receive it.”
And while exploring how your property can become certified as autism-friendly can help, Horn suggests talking to people as the main starting point: “My journey really started by talking to my close contacts and friends. Once I started telling people I was interested in this market, everyone seemed to know someone with autism. Talk to them. Listen and learn what their travel experience is like. From there, anyone can turn it into a more formalised programme for their guests.”
Hero image: rawpixel.com, Pexels
- With 1 in 59 children diagnosed with autism in 2018 in the US alone, the need for autism-friendly accommodations is prevalent
- Many people with autism don’t react well to change, so providing them with preparation material prior to their stay can help facilitate a smooth arrival
- Safety and security is one main concern for families travelling with children who have autism. By putting minor precautions in place, you can help guests to feel at ease
- Hotel restaurants should be aware that people with autism often have food allergies and special diets