All You Need to Know About Autism-Friendly and Post-Pandemic Travel  

As post-pandemic travel opens up again, are you planning a trip for work or vacation? As people become adjusted to travel opening back up, sensory overload remains a concern. Therefore, it is important to consider the impact of your own personal sensory preferences on post-pandemic travel. 

Moreover, within the past years, autism-friendly travel has become increasingly popular. This includes local or domestic travel. It also includes destination vacations and travels abroad. However, you may not know where to find an autism-friendly destination.  Therefore, it is important to look for travel solutions that are right for your family, in particular if someone in your family is autistic. 

This blog post will cover information about not just post-pandemic travel but also autism-friendly travel. 

Sensory Overload and COVID-19 

Sensory sensitivity and sensory overload remain a problem, despite the social isolation and physical distancing of the pandemic. According to this survey, “Sensory Overload and COVID-19” conducted by Sensory Friendly Solutions (2021), 91% of survey respondents indicated that the pandemic has made them experience more sensory overload, not less. There are many reasons that social isolation and physical distancing cause more sensory challenges, including: 

  • Face masks make communication more difficult 
  • Hand sanitizer smells and is often sticky 
  • Socializing after periods of isolation is unfamiliar 
  • Lights seem brighter after the generally reduced lighting at home 
  • Noises seem louder, again after the generally reduced noise at home 
  • Signs are plentiful, marking new directions, and are often confusing 
  • Crowds make people apprehensive 

Survey respondents indicated heightened anxiety about returning to shopping and going on outings as a result of their sensory preferences. Furthermore, it may take several months for people to begin to adjust and feel comfortable in public and busy environments. In fact, your adjustment may take a lot longer or never return. 

How does sensory sensitivity relate to post-pandemic travel? 

Many people concur that travel is an extremely sensory-rich experience. Consider the last time you were at an airport. Recall the busy crowds, loud noises, bright lights, and unfamiliar feeling of being in a big building, trying to find your way around. For many people, travelling is overwhelming. 

Being in a new country or even a different city can lead to sensory overload. Oftentimes, people feel comfortable with the familiar at home. As a result, exploring a new location is overwhelming. Furthermore, stay-at-home orders prevented many people from going to visit new places. We are all out of the habit of visiting new places. Therefore, the thought of leaving home causes greater stress. 

Moreover, consider how you feel after being mostly at home for a year and a half. The thought of travel is likely stress-inducing! 

Lastly, plane rides can be very stressful for people. With or without the worry of COVID. Furthermore, many people may feel uncomfortable sitting close to strangers in a confined space. Planes often do not offer very many sensory-friendly modifications. As a result of this, this may further cause an individual to experience sensory overload. 

What is sensory-friendly travel? 

Sensory-friendly travel includes any adjustments made to the travelling experience, tourist destinations and/or amenities. These changes make it enjoyable for people. These suggestions are especially important for post-pandemic travel! 

Sensory-friendly travel in the skies! 

A feature that more and more airports are offering is giving families the opportunity to practice travelling. This involves navigating around the airport and the planes, themselves. This experience allows children and parents to develop expectations about the travelling process. As a result, this makes the travelling process more familiar and a less stressful process. 

Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) provides identification cards for people with a disability. Importantly, this is especially useful for people with hidden disabilities, such as a sensory processing disorder. 

Lastly, many airports have quiet spaces or sensory-friendly rooms. These are a place you can relax. They may be silent spaces. Or, have comfortable seating. 

Sensory-friendly tourist destinations 

In addition to sensory-friendly travel, there are sensory-friendly tourist destinations popping up around the globe. Cities and towns are making sensory-friendly changes to events and locations in their borders to make people comfortable. This may include anything from sensory-friendly shopping to a quiet zone in parks. For many families, visiting a sensory-friendly city or town makes vacations possible. 

Sensory-friendly hotels 

Oftentimes, sensory-friendly hotels will have features that create a less stimulating sensory experience for guests. This includes: 

  • Quiet zones in public areas 
  • Additional staff training to support guests with hidden disabilities 
  • Sensory play areas for children 
  • Less noise overall 
  • Adjusted lighting. Fewer bright lights 

Four Tips to know about Autism-Friendly Travel 

  1. Many towns and cities have become autism-friendly.  That is a critical part of autism travel. Moreover, autism-friendly towns and cities happen around the world.  Similarly, towns and cities may be called sensory-friendly cities or towns. In this example, the whole city or town adopts autism-friendly measures. 
  2. Airlines and airports adopt practices to help children with autism.  As a result, they also help other sensory-friendly seeking travelers. Finally, they often provide special assistance for travelers with disabilities, in general. 
  3. Hotels are continuously adding things like sensory-friendly rooms. 
  4. Cruises and cruise lines are doing more to accommodate all passengers. That includes autistic people. For example, some cruise lines offer a sensory-friendly cruise experience. 

Autism travelers are part of the large and growing group of people. People who seek sensory-friendly travel. 

Autism-friendly towns and cities

Mother and daughter holding hands walking around autism friendly city.

Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland, Canada, became an autism-friendly destination in 2017.  It was a town-wide, autism-friendly initiative.  For example, the Hotel Port aux Basques became the first autism-friendly hotel in Canada.  The staff at the hotel completed specialized training. In addition, this hotel seeks to provide a quiet and calming environment. They converted a room into a play lounge. Similarly, the lounge is also a bit of a sanctuary.  Most importantly, they created this special space for children with autism. However, they do invite all their guests to use it. This lounge includes a climbing wall, a cocoon-like padded hammock, a plush playboat and a soothing wall with a seaside mural. The mural represents the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds the town. Furthermore, the staff also arranges for additional security measures for guests travelling with children in the rooms. For example, they add drawer locks. Also, they move door locks up higher.

Another instance is Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States.  They claim to be the most autism-friendly city in the world.

And a third example is Clonakilty.  It became the first autism-friendly town in Ireland.

Hotels are investing in sensory-friendly rooms

Above all, hotel operators know that sensory-friendly rooms create a better customer experience for their guests.

Sligo Clayton Hotel

In August 2017, the Clayton Hotel in Sligo County, Ireland, created a sensory room in their hotel. In addition, it is open to all hotel guests.  For example, this space welcomes both adults and children who seek a stress-free and calm environment.

Broadway DoubleTree Hotel

A sensory-friendly hotel destination is the Broadway DoubleTree Hotel in Missouri, USA. Specifically, this facility has provided additional staff training to better assist and care for guests with autism.  Moreover, they adapt housekeeping options and dining room design to better accommodate guests with sensory-processing disorders.

What you might expect from a sensory-friendly hotel:

  • extra staff training
  • additional help for travelers that experience sensory sensitivity
  • a sensory room for children
  • changes in the guest room itself

Autism Friendly Cruises

The majority of cruise lines provide additional services to better accommodate people with a wide variety of disabilities.  For example, several cruise lines include a special needs or a disability desk.  Additionally, there are some special cruises designed for families with individuals that have identified disabilities.

An organization called Autism on the Seas collaborates with several cruise lines. As a result, they provide cruise vacations for families with children who have autism.

Cruise ship passengers returning to autism friendly cruise liners.

Examples of accommodations by autism-friendly ships or autism-friendly cruises.

  • cruising social story
  • early access to your cabin
  • additional training and professional staff
  • gluten-free and dairy-free food
  • greater flexibility in programs
  • greater flexibility in events
  • inclusion of other families with autism onboard
  • priority boarding
  • priority disembarkation
  • private activities
  • sensory-friendly movies
  • toy lending program

Similarly, Carnival cruise lines has adopted sensory inclusion practices too.

Sensory Friendly Airlines

Flying with an autistic child can be a challenge.  Therefore, more airlines make accommodations to help people with autism fly in comfort.  For instance, you might have heard of Wings for Autism or Wings for All.  This program is offered at various airports. It occurs on specific dates. Furthermore, it gives families the opportunity to rehearse flying. And they can practice certain aspects of the flying process. 

In addition, the vast majority of airlines offer disability seating.  This special seating benefits families of autistic children as well.

Two children sitting in airplane seats on a sensory friendly airline

Airline programs that help passengers with a disability, including autism. 

  • Air France Saphir Program 
  • Air New Zealand Skycouch 
  • ANA, All Nippon Airways and their Autism Flight Experience program
  • Delta offers programs at times to introduce children to flying
  • El Al and their ELALCHIK program that offers special features for children
  • Emirates has a Fly with Me Animals program where children receive a stuffed animal souvenir
  • Etihad Airways has a Flying Nanny program
  • Jet Blue started with the Wings for Autism program mentioned above
  • Virgin Atlantic has a bookmark program from Gatwick to Orlando. It lets staff know when a traveller is flying with a hidden disability

Autism Friendly Airports

In Canada, there are programs where families can participate in airport rehearsals. Importantly, this gives families the chance to practice the travelling process for children.  For example, these occur at the Montreal Trudeau Airport in Québec, the Calgary International Airport in Alberta, and the Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Cares is a program in the United States.  TSA Cares has a helpline for travellers. Specifically, it is for travellers with disabilities. Examples include people with medical conditions and other special circumstances that require additional assistance.  TSA Cares helps during the security screening process.

As well the TSA also offers a travel notification card.  This card alerts a TSA officer to someone travelling with a disability. In particular, that helps people with a hidden disability.  For example, hidden disabilities include, but are not limited to, autistic persons, people recovering from a concussion, PTSD and people who have hearing loss.

A happy child standing in airport travelling with suitcase giving thumbs up.

As well, many airports have become more autism-friendly. Or even sensory-friendly. As an example, they offer features like onsite sensory rooms.

Examples of autism-friendly or sensory-friendly airports:

  • Shannon Airport, Shannon, Ireland
  • Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, Birmingham, Alabama, United States
  • Gatwick, Horley, United Kingdom
  • Miami International Airport, Miami, Florida, United States
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Atlanta Georgia, United States
  • Myrtle Beach Airport, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, United States

All in all, sensory-friendly travel is key. Tourist attractions in towns, cities and airlines adapt to autism travel. They become sensory-friendly. Furthermore, museums, exhibits, theatres, amusement parks, and even campsites have become both autism-friendly and sensory-friendly.  Travel is becoming an accessible experience for everyone! 

We hope you use this information to plan an autism and sensory-friendly travel!  

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