Is this the year hotels become more autism-friendly?

It isn’t easy traveling with a child with autism. In every piece of literature I’ve read about autism and sensory disorders and in every daily decision I’ve witnessed in my own son, autism is driven by routine. Travel is anything but routine. The fact that so many facets of travel are left up to chance makes many parents of autistic kids, as well as many adults living with autism, uneasy about leaving the comforts of home to explore new cities, countries, or cultures.

Since Gadling first reported on the Clinton Inn Hotel, a property in Tenafly, New Jersey, that re-designed its Alpine Suite to cater to families traveling with autistic children, more hotels are (slowly) starting to reach out to autistic travelers with autism-sensitive accommodations and amenities. The Center for Autism & Related Disorders, or CARD, a Tampa-based clinic, is ushering in many of these changes by working with local hotels to establish a standardized criteria by which accommodations can be deemed “autism-friendly.” In 2010, CARD designated the Wyndham Tampa Westshore as the first autism-friendly hotel in Tampa. Since then, five Tampa-area hotels and resorts, including the Tradewinds Resorts on St. Pete Beach, have earned “autism-friendly” status.

So, what makes a hotel “autism friendly?”The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, in 2011, 1 in 110 children in the United States have Autism Spectrum Disorders. The neurological disease can affect everything from speech to emotional development to fine and gross motor skills. As it is “spectrum disorder,” autism affects every child it touches in different ways. But there are some easy steps that hotels can take to make accommodations more inviting for special needs travelers and more secure for the parents or companions who travel with them. These measures come from my own experience, suggestions on autism forums, and practices already in use at some autism-friendly properties. Many of these tweaks can be implemented easily at modern hotels, else a hotel can retrofit a room or rooms to accommodate guests with autism.

Measures to Make Hotels More “Autism Friendly”

  • Make all lighting adjustable with dimmers to accommodate travelers who have light sensitivities.
  • Provide temperature controls in rooms.
  • Ensure that all guest room doors have locks on the inside. Put alarms on all exit doors.
  • Many children on the autism spectrum are on restricted diets, whether because of food sensitivities (to taste, texture) or because of allergies. Provide mini fridges in guest rooms so that parents can store their own food and drinks.
  • Bolt down some decorations and amenities, such as lamps, televisions, and telephones.
  • Outfit balconies and/or windows with locks and/or keypads for safety. Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulties with spatial recognition, which could reduce their fear while on a balcony or near a window.
  • Avoid using harsh chemicals or cleaning products and provide frill-free decor. The more basic, the better.
  • Provide extra blankets and pillows. The extra weight simulates the feeling of a “hug” for some on the spectrum, and thereby ensures a more secure and restful sleep.
  • Bathtubs in guest bathrooms are preferable to showers.

As part of its “autism-friendly” services, the Wyndham Tampa Westshore provides kids with an overnight toolkit, which explains visually what to expect during a stay at the hotel; visual schedules have been proven very effective – whether at home, in class, or on the road – with autistic children who need to know what their routines will entail. The Wyndham has also enlisted CARD to train its staff to understand autism and how to cater to guests with autism. In addition to those services, the Tradewinds Resorts touts its recreational activities, such as Splash Island Water Park and the bungee trampoline, as highlights of its autism-friendly services.

Speaking as a parent of a five-year-old with autism and as a travel enthusiast, I would love to see more hotels work to attract travelers with special needs. With every 1 in 110 children in America living with autism, the market for autism-friendly hotels is enormous. And given that families touched by autism are bound by tedious daily routines, I foresee thousands of potential travelers in search of accommodations that will simplify the transition from home to hotel.

Do you know about more autism-friendly properties or hotel amenities? Please let us know in the comments below.