According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 36 children has been diagnosed as autistic and 1 in 6 people has sensory needs or sensitivities, which means that accommodating neurodivergent travelers has become more important than ever before.
Earlier this month, the 893-room JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa became the first JW Marriott property and the first Greater Palm Springs hotel to truly commit to its neurodivergent guests by being designated a Certified Autism Center (CAC). The designation ensures that inclusive options are available for those visitors who have different neurotypes and unique needs. The 450-acre property is Palm Desert’s largest resort and features sweeping views of the Coachella Valley.
The certification was issued by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), an independent organization that accredits autism-friendly businesses and institutions and simultaneously offers cognitive disorder training and education online. The organization is the only independent group that provides these accreditations; it also has an autism-informed certification program for travel advisors.
“At the end of the day, families who have autistic or sensory-sensitive kids just want the same experience as everyone else,” said IBCCES executive director Meredith Tekin, adding that the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa is only the 35th hotel nationwide to receive the CAC distinction.
“Hotels [that] prioritize this are making [it] a priority to go above and beyond to ensure a positive experience for guests of all kinds,” she said.
For the better part of 2022, JW Marriott Desert Springs employees went the extra mile to accommodate neurodivergent guests, participating in training sessions to better understand some of the issues and realities with which autistic and ADHD guests might be grappling.
Jan Hulahan, director of sales and marketing at the resort, said the goal is to empower employees to meet guests where they are.
“Our tagline is, ‘One resort with 100 adventures,’” she said. “We have a lot of families who come to the hotel with different needs, and we thought it would be a good idea to get certified to be able to help all of them find those adventures.”
JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa’s autism-friendly features
In addition to training its staff, the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa has taken other steps to guarantee that the experience is a success for guests of all neurotypes, including those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, personality disorders, and bipolar disorder (to name a few). Most of the efforts revolve around helping guests manage their sensory environments, since many neurodivergent individuals can be overwhelmed by sensory inputs.
Signs all over the property rate sensory impact on a scale of 1 to 10 so sensory-sensitive guests can decide what areas and attractions they may wish to avoid. Signs provide independent ratings for each of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. The ratings were determined during an audit by IBCCES earlier in the year; the signs are similar to those that guests might find at Legoland parks (which also have worked with IBCCES to become more autism friendly).
Special property map
Once IBCCES audited the property for sensory impact, Hulahan and her staff decided to put this information on a special property map. The map lists resort activities, restaurants, and meeting spaces, and it indicates which areas have the lowest sensory inputs. The putting green and grassy lawns are labeled as the lowest sensory spots, while the arcade and aviary have been labeled as high-sensory zones. Hulahan said sensory-sensitive guests can request the map at the front desk starting this week. The resort also will offer the map electronically through a QR code.
In addition to providing additional communication about sensory impacts, the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa invested in a variety of sensory tools for families and individuals who might need them. Specifically, according to Hulahan, the property purchased noise-canceling headsets, fidget toys, weighted blankets, and other sensory aides. These items reside in a bin near the front desk, and guests are welcome to check out tools upon check-in or at any other time during their stay.
Greater Palm Springs embraces autistic travelers
While the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa is the first resort in the Palm Springs area to receive the CAC designation, the entire region is working to distinguish itself as autism friendly.
Visit Greater Palm Springs became a CAC in 2022, and the destination marketing organization has encouraged several attractions in the Coachella Valley to achieve individual certifications as well. So far, the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, and the Rancho Mirage Library & Observatory all have achieved CAC honors.
Davis Meyer, senior director of community engagement for Visit Greater Palm Springs, said these efforts already have gone a long way to help neurodiverse families feel welcome.
“As a community, [we] value inclusivity and being a destination that’s welcoming to all,” she said. “Training businesses and workers in awareness and understanding of autism not only helps those families have a better experience during their stay, it also gives our workers confidence and empathy when interacting with them, their coworkers, and people they meet out in the community.”
Nationwide, the push for more inclusive travel continues. Tekin said IBCCES is in the process of giving 35 additional resorts and hotels CAC certification—which would double the number of U.S. hotels and resorts with the designation. Among those in the pipeline are Great Wolf Lodges across the country. These properties could receive formal CAC designation by the end of the year, Tekin said.