Travel to Visalia—the southern gateway to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks—is now more accessible and welcoming for anyone with a family member who has autism.
Visit Visalia recently became California's first tourism organization to be recognized as a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), an industry leader in autism training.
Executive director Nellie Freeborn galvanized the organization's certification effort.
"My daughter, who is eight, is on the spectrum," she says. "She was diagnosed at about three and a half. Sowe have experienced some of the hardships that happen when you travel."
Autism spectrum disorder varies greatly from person to person but is often characterized by difficulty with social interaction and restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior. For a child or adult on the spectrum, travel can be challenging because it may involve changes to established routines, unfamiliar people or circumstances, and high-sensory experiences like bright lights or unexpected noises.
Freeborn says tourism industry staff are in a unique position to make vacation travel easier for individuals with autism.
"If you're checking into a hotel and there's a long line, that can be problematic,” Freeborn says. “If your child who's on the spectrum starts having a meltdown in a restaurant, you need to get checked out really quickly. If he or she eats only certain foods, it's great to have a restaurant where most of the family can order off the menu but the individual who's on the spectrum can have their own specialized meal, or the family can bring in a meal just for that individual.”
To be designated as a Certified Autism Center, Visit Visalia's staff and board of directors completed an IBCCES training program that focuses on the common behaviors and sensory considerations that matter for people on the autism spectrum.
IBCCES president Meredith Tekin says the training "breaks down myths and stereotypes while providing information to help staff understand how an autistic person may experience the world."
As part of the certification process, Visit Visalia's staff learned how to identify a child or adult who may be on the spectrum and how to empathize and assist without drawing unwanted attention.
"If a staff member sees behavior that resembles something that they learned in their training, they know not to stare, they know to offer assistance, and they know to get down on the child's level," Freeborn says.
"The training is really just understanding how to work with these families. It's making small accommodations so that some obstacles are expedited or minimized to help make a positive travel experience."
Other local businesses are following Visit Visalia's lead. Valley Oaks Golf Course recently became the first California golf course that's also a Certified Autism Center. For guests who have autism or sensory needs, the staff provides designated quiet spaces and "sensory backpacks," which include noise-canceling headsets and fidget toys.
Comfort Suites Visalia Convention Center and Hampton Inn Visalia have also achieved IBCCES certification. The hotels offer an expedited check-in process, private area for breakfast, and other quiet, low-sensory spaces to make travel easier for children or adults with autism. Several other Visalia hotels are also working toward certification.
Tekin says that in early December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released diagnosis rates showing that in the United States, one in 44 eight-year-old children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder.
"We also know one in six people have a sensory need or sensitivity, so the impact is huge," Tekin says. "Tourism, hospitality, and entertainment venues and staff need to better understand these individuals in order to provide a better guest experience."
Visit Visalia also partnered with businesses throughout the city to implement the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program. The program is a discreet way for travelers with any type of "hidden" disability—whether it's cognitive difficulties or mobility, speech, or hearing impairments—to self-identify so businesses know they may need assistance. Visitors can pick up a free sunflower lanyard or bracelet at the Visit Visalia office. More than a dozen Visalia attractions, shops, and restaurants take part in the program.
"It's really about inclusivity," Freeborn says. "It comes down to understanding the challenges these families face. It's about giving them the opportunity to travel and have a great experience."
Visalia is not only a central hub for day-trips to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, it’s also a key stop on the Certified Autism Center California Road Trip, a 550-mile journey to amusement parks and attractions spanning from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego. The route includes six major destinations—including Six Flags Hurricane Harbor Concord, Six Flags Magic Mountain (Valencia), the Santa Barbara Zoo, L.A.'s Grammy Museum, and Sesame Place (opening March 2022 in Chula Vista)—that have been designated as Certified Autism Centers.