Autism-friendly travel

Traveling can bring a family closer as they explore and learn together. However, the journey to the destination can be difficult. The break from structured day-to-day life, the crowds, security lines, and waiting can stress out the most patient of adults, so, how do you get your kids through the chaos — especially if the child is on the autism spectrum or has special needs? Well, the experts say that preparation is the key to successful travel.

There are a number of organizations that aid families traveling with children on the spectrum or with other special needs. The services available range from providing a list of approved resorts and airlines, to organizing group travel or arranging staff to care for children during the vacation.

Travel companies are increasingly offering additional services to become more accessible. Some airlines — such as Delta, JetBlue, and United — offer travel recommendations for families traveling with children with special needs, and in some cities, offer simulations of the boarding process with the help of organizations like Autism Speaks.

A few resorts — such as Club Med and Beaches — have also worked with organizations like SEED Autism Center and Center for Autism and Related Disabilities to assist in training their staff to better provide accessible facilities and offerings.

Even some amusement parks — such as Universal, SeaWorld and Disney — have developed accessibility plans, which are available upon request.

A popular option for family traveling is cruising. Some of the most popular cruise lines, like Carnival and Norwegian, leave from ports in New York. However, one cruise line that has taken accessibility a step further is Royal Caribbean, which departs from a port a short drive away in Bayonne, New Jersey. Royal Caribbean line was present at the New York Times Travel Show and had information on its autism-friendly cruise ships front and center.

Royal Caribbean has partnered with Autism on the Seas, a leading developmental disability service provider to the cruise industry since 2007. Autism on the Seas provides cruises staffed with persons specifically trained to assist families traveling with someone who is autistic or has a developmental disability. It also provides respite and private activities that allow guests with special needs to enjoy the ship’s entertainment.

The Autism on the Seas staff members are educated and experienced to work with those on the spectrum. They have also received background checks in order to work with children and are sanctioned by the cruise lines. The staffers are focused on accompanying your family on the cruise to ensure everyone has a fun, accessible vacation. They provide travel experiences onboard Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Disney, and Carnival cruises.

Of the cruise lines that the organization works with, Royal Caribbean is the only cruise line to date that has achieved bronze-level certification on all ships. This reflects the company’s readiness to accommodate guests with autism and other developmental disabilities, and provide equal access to onboard services and amenities to guests with special needs.

In order to receive this certification, the cruise ships were evaluated regarding the accessibility of their accommodations and the changes they applied to become more accessible. These evaluations also support the cruise line’s efforts to maintain compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Royal Caribbean’s autism-friendly initiative for families includes priority boarding and departure, sensory-friendly films and toys, dietary menu options, and overall, autism-friendly training for Adventure Ocean staff. It also offers a Cruising Social Story booklet to help families prepare their child for the cruise vacation.

Group travel is a great way to get to know other families that have had similar experiences and for your child to meet and socialize with other children either through private group activities or larger ship activities. Parents can also seek a little alone time while the children are in provided care on the ship.

If travel planning seems overwhelming to you, seek the help of a travel professional. ASD Vacations works with families of children with special needs in their travel planning, and specialists are sensitive to autism and related disabilities. The company has relationships with resorts and cruise lines and also partners with Autism on the Seas. Cruises can be booked through the Autism on the Seas website.

Boy voyage!

Shnieka Johnson is an education consultant and freelance writer. She is based in Manhattan where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website:




Social Story:


Other travel:

Additional links: