Royal Caribbean is riding high on the waves after a leading travel organization distinguished it as the first official autism-friendly cruise line. The announcement is the latest acknowledgement of a growing number of autism-friendly travel offerings industry wide.
"When you think about accessibility on a cruise line, you often think about physical, visual and hearing disabilities," said Ron Pettit, manager of ADA and Accessibility Compliance for Royal Caribbean International. "But we want to make sure we are offering services to all of our guests. When we noticed a trend a while back with land-based hotels and movie theaters offering more autism-friendly programs, we immediately wondered, 'well, what can we do about this here?'"
Since then the company has been working to incorporate programs and amenities that follow guidelines provided by Autism on the Seas, the leading travel organization catering to vacationers with autism and other developmental disabilities.
"We’ve been doing this for seven years now and what we’ve all learned is that there are so many families out there that don't think [a cruise vacation] is an option for them," said Mike Sobbell, founder and president of Autism on the Seas. "But it's actually very easy to adapt a cruise to special needs. And it's one of the only destinations where you have so many different things contained in the same space."
Some of the steps Royal Caribbean has taken toward being autism friendly include creating a social story picture book that helps introduce the cruise to a child with autism and provide information and context on what to expect beforehand.
Youth programs, trained daycare and meals that reflect dietary restrictions such as gluten-free or dairy-free are also available.
Other amenities include special movie screenings with brighter lighting and an open policy toward talking and walking around the theater during the film. Less stressful processes for boarding, disembarkation and security processing have also been considered.
"For some people with autism, transitions and changes in routine can be very difficult," said Lisa Goring, executive VP of programs and services for Autism Speaks, which partnered with JetBlue in 2013 to provide realistic air travel practice for those with autism. "New surroundings and not having a known schedule or routine can make the travel difficult."
If you are unsure whether the hotel or airline you are interested in can offer services to a family member with autism, Goring advises calling the destination ahead of time to find out what types of accommodations or activities may be available. Autism Speaks has also published information about travel for families affected by autism that is available on its website.
For more information on Royal Caribbean's autism-friendly ships, visit AutismOnTheSeas.com