On a family holiday in 2018, Marc Garcia was shocked at the strange looks and lack of patience that hospitality staff had for his autistic son. As the CEO and president of tourism bureau Visit Mesa in south-central Arizona, he vowed on his return to ensure neurodiverse travellers who visited his city would have a better experience on their trip than his family had on theirs.
In fact, travel can be so stressful for neurodiverse people that 87% of autistic families don’t take vacations, according to a survey by Autism Travel, an arm of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). The sensory overload involved in travel – including loud noises, dietary changes and a disruption in routine – can cause discomfort and outbursts if not compassionately managed and addressed. But cities like Mesa are finally putting the training and accessibility tools in place so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of travel – not just the neurotypical.
As a starting point, Garcia worked to get the entire tourism bureau trained and certified by the IBCCES, which works to provide cognitive disorder training and certification to professionals so they can be better equipped to interact with neurodiverse people across different settings. For businesses like hotels, restaurants and attractions, this means public-facing staff are trained to understand what autism is, how to empathise with how autistic individuals experience the world and potential common sensitivities, and how to communicate more effectively with them.
In 2020, one in 36 children were diagnosed with autism in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization estimates one in 100 children have autism worldwide, a number that keeps increasing year on year, making it the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the world. Along with sharing statistics and education on autism, the IBCCES training also provides practical guidance on ways to better accommodate neurodiverse individuals.