This Is What Autism Acceptance Looks Like in the Travel Industry

Autism awareness isn’t enough. Here’s how some brands are supporting neurodiverse travelers to make trips not just possible but also enjoyable.

Small group of travelers on a camel ride in the desert, viewed from back, with short palm trees in distance

Group tours can take a lot of stress out of travel for individuals with autism thanks to detailed itineraries provided in advance, but there are also tour operators, like WanderRock, that specialize in trips for neurodiverse young adults.

Courtesy of WanderRock

For many autistic people, including my daughter, travel can be difficult. She thrives on strict routines and craves predictability, neither of which is easy to achieve in a new location. Other hallmark signs of autism include sensitivity to sound and light, as well as struggles with social interaction and nonverbal cues. This can make navigating an airport or crowded attraction difficult and adapting to new cultures and languages challenging. The new sights, sounds, and tastes that are exhilarating for neurotypical travelers can be overwhelming—even debilitating—for someone with autism.

Initiatives like World Autism Awareness Day and Autism Acceptance Month help drive awareness of the basics of the condition, which the Centers for Disease Control estimates affects 5.4 million adults and 1 in every 36 children in the United States. But people with autism need more than awareness to make travel enjoyable—they need support. Thankfully, some parts of the travel industry are now taking active steps to welcome and support people with autism. Even 10 years ago, meaningful support for autistic travelers did not exist. The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), one of the largest providers of autism training and certification, did not start working with the travel industry until 2017. In just the past seven years, IBCCES has partnered with over 200 travel, hospitality, and entertainment brands—and that number continues to grow. Many other travel providers have started working with other organizations, like Autism Double-Checked, or implementing autism-friendly programs of their own.

Here’s what each sector of the travel industry—from individual attractions to major airlines—is doing to help make each step of the journey better for those on the spectrum.

Hotels and resorts

To meet the needs of autistic travelers, more hotels are providing amenities to help them feel more comfortable and intentionally creating quiet spaces where they can decompress. At the JW Marriott Desert Springs in California, autistic guests can request sensory kits with weighted blankets, sound machines, and fidgets, as well as a property map showing low-sensory areas. In 2023, the Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta introduced “temper tents” with padded mats, stress balls, and other amenities that help autistic guests feel at ease.

Other hotels, including Beaches Resorts and select Hilton hotels are autism certified. There are different certifying organizations with different standards for certification. However, most autism-certified locations have guides with photos of what different parts of the property look like and step-by-step descriptions about what to expect during a stay, staff with job-specific training about how to support guests with autism, and special amenities to help autistic travelers feel at ease, such as the sensory kit that JW Marriott Desert Springs provides. One of the largest certifying organizations, IBCCES, requires that autism-certified hotels and attractions retrain staff and pass recertification requirements every two years.

Virgin Hotels is currently undergoing the certification process and hopes to have programming in place for autistic guests at all of its properties by the end of 2024. Starting this spring, Virgin Hotels will host “practice stays,” which allow guests with autism to spend time familiarizing themselves with a hotel close to home at a discounted rate before traveling. As part of this program, guests will receive a visitor’s guide ahead of their stay detailing potential sensory issues, such as places throughout the hotel where they might encounter crowds or waits, higher noise levels, and temperature changes.


Navigating chaotic airports can be difficult for autistic travelers due to the crowds, noises, bright lights, and long waits. Fortunately, many airports have programs in place to support them. TSA Cares allows passengers with autism to notify TSA of their needs in advance, which may include private screenings away from crowds or requesting permission to wear noise-canceling headphones through security. TSA asks that travelers complete an online form or call 72 hours before traveling to request assistance, but TSA agents are flexible with this requirement and often provide assistance at the airport even if it was not requested in advance.

More than 240 airports around the world, including JFK in New York City and Narita in Tokyo, also participate in the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program. Autistic travelers can participate in this program by wearing a sunflower pin or lanyard, which subtly alerts airport staff that someone has a hidden disability that may require additional support. Travelers can order items displaying the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower logo in advance or request a lanyard at airport kiosks at participating airports.


Flying in a cramped airplane, surrounded by strangers and loud noises, can be jarring for autistic passengers. Specific assistance varies by airline, but nearly all airlines provide accommodations for autistic passengers.

Travelers with autism can call their airline to add “Disabled Passenger with Intellectual or Developmental Disability Needing Assistance,” or DPNA, to their boarding pass after they purchase a ticket. The DPNA code, which airlines use worldwide, alerts airline staff that passengers require additional support, which may include early boarding, accommodating seating preferences, and providing meals on demand.

Some airlines go further. British Airways created a visual guide to help autistic passengers anticipate what to expect on a flight and has empowered staff to furnish support as needed, such as upgrading guests to seats with more room or in a quieter part of the plane. Turkish Airlines participates in the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program and can provide autistic passengers with priority boarding and seats with more legroom. Alaska Airlines hosts practice flights for autistic passengers that allow them to experience the full airport journey from checking bags to deplaning before taking a flight. Alaska also created a Fly for All mobile app that provides assistance and guidance throughout the travel process.


Many attractions have implemented supportive programs to help autistic individuals. Broadway shows are accessible through the TKTS Discount Booths, TDF Accessibility Programs, which stages at least four sensory-friendly shows a year without sudden loud noises and bright lights. Other theaters throughout the country use the same model to offer sensory-friendly performances. Most amusement parks, from Dollywood to Hersheypark have programs that allow guests with autism to avoid long, crowded lines that may be overstimulating. Some, like Universal Studios, also offer sensory guides so that guests know which rides have sudden movements and sounds; in addition, they have quiet rooms for guests who need a space to decompress. Many museums offer sensory-friendly programs with limited attendance and quiet spaces. Beaches Resorts and Panama City Beach, Florida, offer PADI-certified scuba diving excursions for individuals with disabilities.

Group of young adults making pizzas in an outdoor kitchen

WanderRock offers group trips for neurodiverse young adults in their 20s and early 30s.

Courtesy of WanderRock

Tour Companies

In general, group tours can take a lot of stress out of travel for individuals with autism thanks to detailed itineraries supplied in advance, as well as a tour guide who can answer questions and handle problems as they arise.

Then there are also tour operators that specialize in trips for neurodiverse travelers. WanderRock, which offers group trips for neurodiverse young adults in their 20s and early 30s, trains its guides in a curriculum that helps travelers build skills to advocate for themselves, budget, and increase understanding through cultural experiences. Travelers all connect virtually beforehand to help facilitate social interaction, and they are also given tips about wellness and self-care to help prevent becoming overwhelmed.

And though Intrepid Travel doesn’t cater only to travelers on the spectrum, the Australia-based tour operator recently implemented Ethical Marketing Guidelines to become more inclusive. For example, Intrepid Tours intentionally incorporates plenty of free time, which autistic travelers can use to decompress. To increase inclusivity, Intrepid Tours is pursuing a partnership with, an organization that supports neurodivergent individuals, to create more accessible trips. As part of this initiative, Intrepid will provide neurodivergent travelers with trip guides to help anticipate each step of their travels.

Even though these parts of the travel industry have made big strides toward autism acceptance over the past few years, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. My family still has to carefully plan our travels because so many places remain inaccessible to my daughter. People with autism should be able to travel anywhere they would like and get the support they need to make their trips not just possible but also enjoyable.

Jamie Davis Smith is a writer, attorney, and mother of four. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Travel + Leisure, USA Today, Yahoo, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and many other publications. When not off exploring, Jamie can be found enjoying her hometown of Washington, D.C.
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