“Certified Autism Centers” Versus “Autism Friendly” Vacation Destinations
It’s hard to know the difference between destinations that are certified autism centers versus autism friendly.
When my kids were little I never even heard of the term “autism friendly”.
Whenever we traveled to visit a children’s museum, a zoo, a county fair, or an amusement park, we handled a sensory meltdown in the best way we could. Being the one to take them places, I just dealt with it on my own.
Before we really got the chance to make the most of our time at these fun places, out of exhaustion and frustration we often just simply…LEFT.
So, when I found out about certain theme and water parks being “certified autism centers” I was extremely curious.
Why is Being a “Certified Autism Center” Such a Big Deal?
In July 2018, Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, became the first theme park to become a designated “Certified Autism Center”…and it was all over the news.
For a parent whose children have autism, it felt like a HUGE deal! With the certification planted front and center on its website and at the parks, families with autism felt an enormous amount of support and understanding.
In a sense, it was a morale booster for the collective population of autistic individuals and their families. Finally, the world was recognizing that their needs were valued.
What Being a “Certified Autism Center” Means
To earn this certification, a company partners with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Educations Standards (www.ibcces.org). This allows parks like Sesame Place to be recognized as adhering to a particular standard in which they provide educated assistance to those with autism.
Other facts about this credential:
- At least 80% of the staff must complete training to understand what it’s like to have autism, including the differences in sensory awareness, fine and gross motor skills, and social and emotional awareness.
- An on-site review is conducted on a regular basis to ensure greater accommodations in its layout and attractions as well as staff sensitivities to autism needs.
- Detailed sensory guides must be created to let parents know what attractions the child with autism can handle (which can be downloaded and previewed before visiting the park).
- The park offers sensory break rooms and equipment (such as noise-cancelling headphones).
- The end goal is to provide a positive vacation experience to all families, including those with autism.
Sesame Street came out with the first autistic character, Julia, and has been a diversity advocate since the beginning. It doesn’t surprise me that Sesame Place became the first theme park to earn this important certificate.
For the full list of places that have received the “Certified Autism Center” credential, visit Autism Travel.
What Being “Autism Friendly” Means
There are actually many places to visit that are “autism friendly”. They may not have the “autism certified center” designation (YET), but most have a fair amount of accommodations to help autism families.
This also means that their accommodations are not standardized. Each park has developed their own system to assist people on the spectrum. They may greatly vary in the types of accommodations they offer, so “autism friendly” means different things.
You have to visit each park website—and sometimes really dig to find the information—or call with questions.
The Disney Parks, like many theme or amusement parks, offer accommodations for waiting in long queues, called the “Disability Access Service”.
In Disneyland, you get the return time for attractions at certain kiosks throughout the park (had to do a hard “search” for this link!).
In Walt Disney World, you get the return time at the actual attraction itself (link is found under the “Help” tab).
Even though they are both Disney parks, they each have different processes. To my knowledge, cast members direct autism families to their first aid station if they need a “break room” but do not offer a special sensory room.
Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has created a social story about its park through the website. They built a “calming room” for those in need a sensory break. You’ll find items like weighted blankets and a teepee.
They also include rider requirements and accessibility guideline documents to help you prepare for the trip. Many families have been delighted to find that this park has gone the extra mile to accommodate.
Is One Credential Better Than Another?
Parks that are “certified autism centers” are more prepared when it comes to accommodating someone with autism. They have gone through in-depth training.
In addition, they are more likely to accommodate in not just a systematic, park approach but also in a more sensitive, personal way.
It’s unclear how much autism training “autism friendly” parks employees receive. I suspect those who help families like ours are more familiar with autism and more sensitive. But this scenario may not always be so consistently.
You can have a good time no matter where you go with the right preparation and a little research. And THAT is my mission of Your Autism Guide.
Over time, I want to provide you with the right resources to best prepare your family to have a truly enjoyable vacation!