Travel Advisor Jennifer Hardy was one of the first agents in the state of Washington to become a Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP) and knows just how important it is to look for certain things when traveling for families with autistic members. That’s because she has four adopted children of her own that are autistic or have similar needs and manifestations that require her to travel differently to ensure their needs are met.
“When I’m traveling, I’m looking at the space,” said Hardy. “What does it look like? Will there be sensory overload? Is there quiet space on board? What resources does the location have? If you forgot noise cancellation headphones, will they have it to loan to you? Do they offer social stories? Those are the main things but what I’m looking for when I scout or book a venue for families with special needs.”
Jennifer Hardy with her husband and four children.
“It’s personal. People come to me because I have experience traveling with my own kids. I’m looking for locations that have quiet space faraway from public space and creates separation for down time. I also look at training that the destination has. It’s important for destinations to have a background where employees can assist or recognize and assist in an emergency. If you go somewhere, and they have a meltdown, you get stares. I’ve been told off. That’s not right. So having employees who can help and pinpoint a child in crisis--that’s what I’m looking for.”
Hardy says having family members with special needs shouldn’t be a deterrent to travel and see the world, but here are her Top 5 FAMILY TRAVEL TIPS to make that experience a joyful one.
1) Minimize transitions. Booking non-stop flights, renting a car, and staying in one hotel or on one ship for the duration of your trip helps to reduce the stress and anxiety on both parents and children. It also reduces the likelihood of unexpected delays.
2) Bring a “Go Bag”. Fill your bag with the essentials: noise cancelling headphones, favorite toys and activities, fidgets/sensory tools, healthy non-perishable snacks, social stories and more.
3) Start small and build up to the larger vacations. Trial runs help! Keep track of what works and what doesn’t for future trips.
4) Create and stick to an itinerary. A written itinerary (and relevant social stories) helps you and your children to know what ot expect on your vacation. Review the schedule with the whole family in advance and don’t forget to allot extra time for breaks. Adults need recovery time as much as kids!
5) Use an expert. Travel Advisors are true experts in travel and have years of experience and education, along with access to helpful resources. Plus, it doesn’t cost you anything extra to lean on their expertise and services.
Hardy says when she was starting out, there weren’t as many resources to draw from but times have changed. One thing that TSA has instituted is the "Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard Program".
“The sunflower lanyard is for invisible disabilities. For example, rheumatoid arthritis. It was created to let people know that you have something you can’t see that might require assistance. So if they see you struggling, they can come help. It helps determine if you’re in crisis. It’s free at participating airports worldwide. They have training to look for the lanyard.”
Hardy says there are certain cruise lines that have worked on their autism programs, such as Carnival, Beaches, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity and she hopes that more will follow suit.
“When someone comes back from their vacation, even if they struggled, they’re appreciative. And that means more than any commission. It’s all about making traveling a joy for others. And it expands when you can make a difference for someone else. “
Jennifer Hardy is based in Seattle, Washington and was one of the first to become a Certified Autism Travel Professional in the state of Washington. Her travel website is: www.afloatandashore.com.