Hotels finally catering to neurodivergent travellers

Some 78% of families affected by autism say they entirely avoid travelling because the industry does so little to meet their needs. Hotels are starting to find solutions 

by LEBAWIT LILY GIRMA 

ON A family trip to Walt Disney Co’s. Orlando theme parks, Nicole Thibault’s 2.5-year-old son began experiencing meltdowns — and not in the standard toddler sense. Everything he had previously loved became deeply distressing, from his favourite characters to familiar foods setting off tantrums that could stretch for more than 30 minutes. 

Something felt amiss, Thibault recalls of the weeks before her son was diagnosed with autism. Determined to continue showing her son the world — sans meltdowns — her next step was to solicit travel tips from experienced parents of neurodivergent kids. One after another, the responses poured in, variants on the same idea: “We don’t go anywhere. It’s just too hard.” 

A decade later, Thibault has built her New York-based travel agency, Magical Storybook Travels into a thriving business that caters specifically to neurodivergent families. In pre-travel counselling sessions for her clients, she studies their daily routines and preferences before discussing potential destinations. Then she’ll offer detailed briefs for each suggested hotel, including video tours, floor plans and potential sensory triggers (such as possible fireworks display in the vicinity or strong scents in the lobby) to set expectations on a very granular level. 

In the US, approximately 20% of the population (66 million people) experience a form of neurodivergence. These often- invisible conditions range from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder to dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome. 

Each diagnosis — and each individual — is unique, and so are their destabilising triggers. A child who thrives in playgrounds may prove intolerant of mulched wood chips on the ground. Another may love the stimulation of big cities — until the raspy sound of a subway announcement rattles them. Some may subsist primarily on chicken nuggets, but only if they’re not deemed “too scratchy”. Add a decreased ability to communicate verbally in unfamiliar or stressful environments, and it’s easy to see how travel can amount to a series of land mines. 

The concerns are so overwhelming that, according to a 2022 survey, 78% of families or individuals with autism forgo travelling entirely. The findings are from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which trains education, healthcare and corporate professionals on neurodivergent inclusivity. While that figure represents a drop from 87% in 2018, it’s still too large a number, the organisation’s president Meredith Tekin said in an emailed statement. 

But hotel brands are now wising up to the untapped economic opportunity of catering to this substantial segment and brushing up on how to extend a sensitive welcome. Up for grabs: Tens of millions of prospective guests that currently stay home. 

The Hyatt Regency Aqaba in Jordan. Hyatt Hotels has expressed interest in training and certification for catering to neurodivergent guests

Education First, Then Amenities 

The first step, and the bulk of what these hotels are doing now, is training. Certifications such as those offered by IBCCES help employees to anticipate neurodivergent needs and handle guest interactions sensitively. Rather than stop to stare at Thibault’s toddler in a tantrum or worse, offer gratuitous advice-trained staff are prepared to respond to parental requests for help while encouraging bystanders to move along quietly. 

The board’s conversation with hotels, said Tekin, is shifting. “I have noticed a change from organisations asking ‘why’ this is a need to asking ‘how’ to better welcome these guests,” she wrote. 

Close to 200 travel and tourism companies have received IBCCES’ Certified Autism Centre or Advanced CAC designations since the program’s inception in 2017. Recent examples include Atlantis Dubai, JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa and Lego-land Korea Resorts. More are listed on the Autism Travel website alongside hotels that have adopted similar certifications from other organisations. 

Some of these hotels have followed by offering smart amenities such as cue cards and fidget tools to help travellers work through stressful moments. At Karisma’s all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, guests can pre-fill an “autism passport” with details on sensitivity triggers, food preferences or calming strategies for the reservations team to share with hotel staff. In some cases, they can share the requests with airline and airport partners, too. 

In recent months certification interest has grown to include multi-property efforts from larger brands such as Hyatt Hotels Corp, Karisma Hotels & Resorts, Margaritaville Enterprises LLC resorts and Virgin Hotels Group Ltd. In late 2023 the latter announced it was partnering with Autism Double-Checked, an education and awareness organisation catering to the travel industry. In an emailed statement, CEO James Bermingham of Virgin Hotels said the brand was committed “to foster a welcoming space where all guests, including those with neuro-diverse needs, can feel truly at ease”. 

All this comes with cost to hotels. While several accreditation organisations called the process inexpensive, none would disclose pricing. 

“One of the things that holds people up is they can’t figure whether it’s the right thing to do, from the point of view of social inclusion, or whether it’s a commercial opportunity to open up to a bigger audience,” says Alan Day, co-founder and CEO at Autism Double- Checked. “In reality, it’s both.” 

A Diverse Segment with Unique Needs

Rachel Lipson, the founder of Brooklyn Family Travelers and mother of two boys, one of whom has ADHD, describes travel planning as if it were a rigorous full-time job. Details she needs to know about hotels are rarely available online. Do the rooms connect? Is the pool open to children? Are there adults-only swim times to consider? How cold is the water? “A lot of my time is spent asking all these questions,” she said. 

Doing so is critical. Children with ADHD often need to expend lots of energy in the morning, Lipson has learned; a half-hour morning swim has opened the door to stress-free travel for her family. Also critical for her kids is being able to bounce from one activity to the next: bookstores, ice cream shops, museums and so forth. If one pursuit is a miss, she said, it’s easy to pivot to the next. 

Travel advisor Thibault, meanwhile, says her son’s diet is very limited and that he has sensitivity to noise. The questions she asks of hotels before booking are entirely different than Lipson’s concerns. 

Therein lies the issue for hotels: Neuro-divergence is an especially wide spectrum. Few amenities work across the board. 

Room for Improvement 

Caitlin Meister, founding director of the neuro-diversity-affirming education consultancy Greer Meister Group, said hotels have many ways to rise to the occasion. She said kids like Lipson’s, who are buoyed by a concentrated burst of sensory activity (“sensory seekers,” she calls them), are common; meeting their needs can be as simple as adding a trampoline, swing or climbing wall to kids’ clubs or play spaces. Similarly, a designated quiet space can offer great comfort to those with noise sensitivities. 

Creating walk-through videos should be easy, given how many hotels have social media directors that create in-house video content. Filling these with details on sounds, sights, tactile textures and smells at every location can help families prepare for each aspect of their stay. 

Take a client of Thibault’s, whose autistic son became fixated on what the toilets would be like on vacation. A room tour she found on YouTube proved a perfect solution, she recalls. Showing him what the bed, bathroom, sink, shower and toilet would look like — and how they were all laid out-made a tremendous difference. “It calmed him enough that he could think about the fun things that they were going to do,” she said, rather than continuing on a stress-fuelled downward spiral. 

Such content can extend to common spaces. “If you have multiple pools at your resort, and one has a smooth bottom and the other has a prickly textured surface, you might put that on a sensory guide,” said Meister. 

The Atlantis Dubai recently published one such guide that guests can download before their stay. It offers numeric ratings for the intensity of taste, touch, sound and smell in every area of its resorts, on a one to five scale. 

Ultimately, the most important way to cater to neurodivergent travellers and their stressed-out parents be a simple show of empathy. 

On a recent trip, Lipson recalls, her kids were being wild and loud in the lobby of the Andaz Amsterdam. She felt mortified. But staff was quick to pick up on her stress. 

“They said something like, ‘Make yourselves at home; this is their home, too,’” she recalls of the simple, effective interaction. “It gives me chills when I think about it.” — Bloomberg 


  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition