HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – For some with Autism Spectrum Disorder, traveling somewhere new, has the potential to be anxiety-inducing, especially for those who have sensory sensitivities, being extra aware of things like lights, crowds, and loud or unfamiliar noises.
Nonprofit, Tourism All-A-Bama, is doing its best to curb any travel anxiety by training hotels across the state to be more aware of their neuro-diverse guests.
“That’s what they’re about is making everyone feel welcomed, and I think that sensory sensitivities, autism, those were blind spots in the hospitality industry,” organizer Leslie Walker said.
Walker is the Engagement Manager for United Cerebral Palsy in Huntsville, which manages Tourism All-A-Bama.
The program was born during the pandemic, after recognizing a pattern in their families.
“We found our families with developmental disabilities were becoming even more isolated and not traveling. Hotels clearly were empty because no one was traveling, so it was like ‘how do we marry these two groups of people together,'” Walker said.
The Doubletree in south Huntsville is just one of the more than 100 hotels the program has trained. Yedla is their management company. General Manager Ashlee Crosby said some basics for training include establishing what some potential behaviors and triggers could be, and how to prevent or address them.
“Not just the front desk staff but the breakfast area, your maintenance workers. The staff is prepared for their travel,” Crosby said.
One way is by making sure neuro-diverse guests are booked into a quieter room if possible, away from an elevator or an ice machine. Crosby said her staff is on board because many have personal ties.
“We have several different employees here that have different family members who are autistic or who have sensory issues so this is very important to us,” Crosby said.
The front desk is also equipped with a sensory kit from the program, to offer their Tourism All-A-Bama guests when they check-in. The kits have tools like headphones, a weighted blanket, and pop-its for the guest to use to stay calm, in case triggers do begin to surface.
After training is completed, Walker reaches out to the program’s families and asks them to try out one of the hotels for a “practice” stay or to use during their next trip to another city in Alabama.
“We encourage them by paying for one complimentary night at any one of those trained hotels. All they have to provide is their name, a date, where they want to go and a copy of their diagnosis,” Walker said.
This is made possible through a grant from the Alabama Council on Developmental Disability, but the city of Huntsville contributed additional funds to get more hotels trained in the Rocket City.
One family who utilized the DoubleTree is Courtney Stephens. She visited with her son Christian, who has autism.
They visited Huntsville to see the Galaxy of Lights and wanted to try somewhere that was ready for Christian, something Courtney said, was not always apparent during their trips.
They travel often, as Courtney is a blogger.
“The hospitality industry just recognizing that the behaviors he has can be accommodated and taken into account, that just makes my mom heart overflow,” Stephens said. “It’s important that our kids feel like they matter, our neuro-diverse population feels like it matters in every step of life.”