As the parent of two autistic children, I’ve often thought about what life would be like if the world were a little more understanding of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

I think about how, if the staff at stores and restaurants were trained about what autism can look like and the huge range of the autism spectrum, my children would be more accepted and things may be a little easier. 

Instead, I’ve experienced people telling me that my child is spoiled because she had a meltdown due to sensory overload. My son has been called rude for giving direct answers and not making eye contact. We have had to leave events and parties because there was nowhere quiet for my children to regroup when the noise became too much. 

A little understanding in these situations would go a long way, and if I could wave a magic wand, there are a lot of changes I would make. 

Imagine instead events that were sensitive to sensory needs by providing a quiet area or deciding to keep music lower from the outset. Maybe there are even headphones and fidget toys available for kids who need them. 

While a world that is autism-friendly still seems far away, there are a few towns in the United States and Canada that are coming close. These autism-friendly towns are setting the standard for how other cities around the world can not just be more accommodating but more welcoming and inclusive. 

Planning a vacation or even a move? Add one of these autism-friendly towns to your shortlist.

Myrtle Beach & Surfside Beach, South Carolina

Myrtle Beach and neighboring Surfside Beach are popular family vacation destinations for good reason. Not only do these towns have beautiful beaches, but they also have riverboats, state parks, dolphin watching, pirate cruises, and more.

Many children with autism enjoy being by the water so these towns are a great choice for families with an autistic child. What makes these seaside towns stand out is that both Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach are certified autism-friendly destinations. 

These towns make it easy to visit from the moment of arrival. The closest airport to the area features a quiet room. Once you arrive, you will find that staff at many attractions, hotels, and restaurants throughout both locations are trained in autism awareness. Locations throughout each town offer sensory-friendly amenities and sensory-friendly attractions including an aquarium and sky wheel. Even local residents have taken autism-awareness training. 

For children who may elope, the beach’s welcome center provides GPS-enabled wristbands. This is crucial because elopement is especially scary around the ocean where the risk of drowning poses a real threat. When you are ready to take a break from the beach, head to the town’s fully accessible playground. 

Myrtle Beach’s Champion Autism Network’s Facebook page is updated regularly with information about sensory-friendly events that take place throughout the region.

With so much support, Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach are truly dedicated to ensuring that everyone has a great vacation. 

Mesa led the way in recognizing the importance of creating a truly autism-friendly town when it became the first autism-certified city in the United States.

Mesa, Arizona 

Finding autism-friendly locations throughout Mesa is easy. Throughout the city, more than 60 hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues have trained their staff on how to best support and accommodate visitors with autism. The list of participating businesses is diverse so everyone can find something they enjoy. To name just a few, autistic visitors can find the support they need at goat yoga, the Arizona Museum of Natural History, and an escape room just to name a few places. 

Mesa also boasts several autism-certified options for lodgings. Visitors can choose from a guest ranch on a lake, traditional hotels, and budget-friendly options. 

The town created autism-specific travel itineraries to help autistic visitors and their families easily locate attractions, hotels, and restaurants. Mesa also created sensory guides to help prepare autistic visitors for their trip. 

Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, Canada 

Port Aux Basques is a small seaside Canadian town. Their road to becoming one of the most autism-friendly destinations in North America began with a mother determined to make her hometown more welcoming for her own autistic children. 

She started by arranging get-togethers for families with autistic children and stocking the local library with resources. She then joined others to help train employees in establishments all over the town about how to best support those with autism. That means someone in nearly every location, from a sea captain to a server in a pizza restaurant, is likely to have a better than average understanding of autism and what type of accommodations a visitor may need to feel more comfortable. The town’s recreation center also has a mini-gym that children can use when they need a break. 

Even local children enjoy visiting the Hotel Port Aux Basques because of its sensory room complete with bean bags and swinging chairs. The hotel’s restaurant is also autism-friendly. They have a designated quiet space for those who prefer to eat in a calmer environment. They also have a menu with pictures for visitors who are nonverbal or who use an alternative means of communication.

Preparing for Your Trip

The saying “if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism” is especially true when it comes to travel. Just because one child loves the destinations here does not mean they will be right for everyone.

If traveling to another town for vacation, you may find autism-friendly hotels and attractions if you look. You can also try calling the visitor’s bureau for your destination and asking them for advice. As with any travel, preparation for a child with autism is key. An ABA therapist can help prepare a schedule and suggest other supports to make travel easier for everyone. (Be sure to check out our top tips for traveling with a child with autism.)