Updated: Sep 17
In this post, I explore the first city to become a certified autism city, through the IBCCES. My family was going to go check out this city later this year but due to the global pandemic, I decided in an abundance of caution to postpone our trip until later next year. We might go for my oldest son’s 10th birthday, I can’t believe I said that what happened to the time?!?! Anyway, let’s take a look at this city that is paving the way for the future of special needs travel! Mesa. AZ is a destination you may want to consider visiting especially if you have a loved one on the autism spectrum or a client with a loved one on the spectrum!
During this pandemic not only have families with autism experienced things such as trouble with getting teletherapy approved by certain insurance providers their kids have been locked up indoors. I know for us our insurance didn’t cover certain therapies for telehealth which I understand but at the same time It’s difficult for a neurotypical family, in general, to be indoors for so long and then to add in autism or another cognitive disability and it’s just that much harder. It can be scary to consider travel with all the things around the world going on but I believe the key to travel is domestic travel that allows for fewer interactions with others and when that can’t happen to be able to easily social distance. With this in mind, a domestic location you might want to have on your list is Mesa, AZ. The entire city has been certified by the IBCCES to be an autism certified city. Visit Mesa is a wonderful city a part of the greater Phoenix area that is very close to the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
From the Visit Mesa Website I wanted to read how they are promoting the city: "MESA, ARIZONA IS THE FIRST-EVER AUTISM CERTIFIED CITY IN THE UNITED STATES. Mesa, Arizona is your newest place to play and experience authentic Arizona fun with confidence, knowing your needs come first. Discover the country’s first Autism Certified City! Recognized nationally as one of the most family-friendly communities in the United States, Mesa hotels and attractions are rolling out the red carpet to welcome travelers on the spectrum. Whether creating a work of art, panning for gold, or exploring our stunning desert landscape for the first time, Mesa offers a full-sensory experience for every family."
Mesa, AZ is a surprisingly unique destination to considering visiting with your kids. Yet, it’s a little confusing when this place is the first city to become an Autism Certified City. What does that even mean?
They are certified through the same organization I got my certification which is the IBCCES, the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. The ACC designation, awarded by IBCCES, is given to communities where key stakeholders, including healthcare, education, local government, hospitality, leisure, and corporate members are trained and certified to better serve individuals with autism and other cognitive disorders. Mesa is the first city to be designated as such. Cities and Centers like Six Flags for instance get IBCCES certified by completing the training of at least 80% of guest or public-facing staff in autism and sensory disorders through IBCCES. The goal is to better prepare staff and management to serve individuals with autism or sensory needs. The certification must be renewed every 2 years with updated training provided for staff at each certified organization. For me as a client-facing travel agent, it is different. I have to get my training renewed annually.
What does this training do? There are a whole host different organizations that can be certified but we are looking at the travel and leisure category For travel and leisure-related organizations, such as hotels, attractions, and visitor services, the staff is trained to better understand what autism is (and isn’t), how to empathize and understand how individuals with autism experience the world, communicate more effectively and be aware of common sensitivities and concerns in a recreational environment. Which for you as a parent or caregiver of a loved one with autism makes it so much easier to get out to a city like Mesa! I hope more cities will follow suit!
So what does Mesa have to offer as far as accommodations go? I recommend you talk to a travel agent that is a Certifed Autism Travel Professional, if you don’t know one I’d be happy to help you plan a trip for your family. The CATP will know what accommodations have autism programs to make your downtime more comfortable! For example, some of the hotels in have autism programs that meet the needs of autism families. The hotels in the area have you covered with things like anti-slip bath mats and diaper genies when needed. For entertainment, they offer items like tablets and portable DVDs with headphones. For safety, they have electrical outlet covers, bed rails, and door alarms. Many also have items that indicate that an individual as a special need this was staff are able to identify them. Best of all, they also have items that can help with sensory challenges like weighted blankets, weighted vests, balance pods, therapy balls, unique silverware, and sippy cups. They even have bean bags! Some of the gift stores stock hand sanitizers, adult diapers, and armband floaties. The hotel also helps connect guests with local services. But this is something your travel agent can help you with as well before you travel. They can assist in renting wheelchairs or strollers as well as contact respite services to give parents a much-needed break. If you want to learn about that I will be talking about the importance of caregiver self-care in a future episode so stay tuned!
When looking for food there are tons of options available that are autism-friendly. There are several places that can accommodate families such as Cafe Azul, most of the hotels, and Jarrod’s Coffee and Tea. Cafe Azul offers a relaxing, dining atmosphere, overlooking a stunning courtyard and fountain. Café Azul serves Mediterranean flare with Italian and Spanish influences. The list on the website is way too long to list but if it is certified you’ll find the IBCCES marker that says it’s been certified.
There are so many activities for families to engage in from the autism-friendly Butterfly Wonderland to the Arizona Natural History Museum. There are so many activities. What are some places to go and see?
Butterfly Wonderland is the largest indoor butterfly conservatory in America, it offers a truly unique rainforest experience including 3,000 friendly butterflies, birds, reptiles, fish, and more! I wanted to mention this because they have a special guided tour that includes a guide throughout your whole experience, a butterfly release, behind the scenes visit inside the Rainforest Reptile Lab, interactive bug talks (including a chance to eat bugs!), viewing of the 3D movie, and opportunities to engage with an expert in the chrysalis gallery and conservatory to talk about the butterflies, the bees, and anything else you can think of!
I.D.E.A. Museum is a fun, inspiring, and educational hands-on art museum for children and families. It includes popular art and STEAM in the multi-sensory experiences provided by the use of technology to support these offerings and even more opportunities for families to create together.
Tubing at the lower salt bend at Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch - if you’ve never tried river tubing, this is your chance to savor the majestic Lower Salt River in all its glory as you serenely float downstream in a large inner tube, watching wildlife, chatting with friends and family, and enjoying the cool water and the warm sun. Tubing season runs from May to September. Please remember water safety with this. Kids with autism most love the water so I recommend brushing up on water safety!
There are so many places to explore that are certified by the IBCCES that there is way many to list but just trust there is something for everyone in Mesa!
It is nice that a city takes into account the needs of a family with autism. The website has sensory guides to help families plan a trip knowing what to expect from each attraction and this way when working with a travel agent you can plan your trip to meet as many or as little sensory needs or aversions as possible! There are also lists on the website for hotels, dining options and so much more. It is a resource not to be missed and travel agents will be your best bet again for making the most out of your vacation!
Mesa, Arizona is on track to be a city that shows other cities what they can do to help families with autism travel MORE and safely with all the uncertainty in travel right now, a city like this is providing a place to enjoy for many families looking to take a break from everyday life. If you are thinking about booking a vacation sometime soon and you have a loved one with a special needs call your travel agent or I’d be happy to work with you planning an unforgettable vacation. As a mom with a child with autism, I understand the unique challenges that make traveling a little bit more difficult to begin. But with some flexible plans, we can get you out the door and closer to reconnecting as a family.
Will you add Mesa to your bucket list?
As always thank you so much for listening if you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me! I'd love to help your family plan an unforgettable vacation!
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