Certification program helps agents plan autism-friendly vacations

Certified Autism Travel Professional Nicole Thibault on a family vacation at Rio Secreto in Mexico with her husband, Chris, and sons Tristan, 13, Sebastian, 11 and Emerson, 9.
Certified Autism Travel Professional Nicole Thibault on a family vacation at Rio Secreto in Mexico with her husband, Chris, and sons Tristan, 13, Sebastian, 11 and Emerson, 9.

In the U.S., about one in 68 children -- or 1.5% -- have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While it is too early to tell if that rate will rise or stabilize, travel agents are increasingly seeking training to serve families traveling with someone diagnosed with ASD.

According to the CDC, ASD is more common in boys, with one in 42 identified as being on the spectrum. The rate among girls is one in 189. Studies conducted from 2002 to 2010 indicated that the rate of children with ASD was growing. From 2010 to 2012, however, the rate remained stable. Looking to the future, the CDC said it's still too soon to know if the rate has actually stabilized or will grow further.

"If you haven't had a client with a child with autism yet, you're going to," said Nicole Thibault, owner of Magical Storybook Travels in Fairport, N.Y. "Somebody is going to come to you at some point and say, 'My child has autism. How do we navigate this?' And if you can be prepared for that situation as a travel agent, you look like a rock star."

Last August, the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) introduced a new certification agents can achieve: Certified Autism Travel Professional. Since then, the group has certified more than 1,000 agents, a number that continues to grow steadily.

In addition to agents, the IBCCES also trains and certifies destinations, such as a number of Beaches Resorts and Sesame Place in Philadelphia.

The program started when Beaches Resorts approached the IBCCES last year, according to Jaclyn Fratus, the board's director of strategic partners. They wanted to be better equipped to accommodate individuals with ASD and underwent comprehensive staff training with the IBCCES.

"From there, it really just took off, and we had travel agents reaching out to us, and other large organizations," she said.

Fratus often travels to agent conferences to spread awareness about the program, and she said the reception among the agent community has been very positive. She recently attended a home-based agent conference that drew about 175 attendees, and Fratus estimated that 90% signed up for the training on the spot.

"I have not heard one negative thing," she said. "Everybody we've heard from has just said that this was so overdue, and there's nothing like that out there."

The program includes 10 core competencies, covering topics such as what autism is, the individual's perspective and the parent perspective, air travel, cruises and selling to the autism market.

It covers the vacation-selling process from start to finish, Fratus said. It also includes tips on making a sale or upselling, and how to talk to clients who are traveling with an individual with ASD.

"They just want the person that they call to have a little confidence and a little bit of awareness of what autism is, and how to help them plan if they've never been to that destination," she said.

Fratus said the course takes about four hours to complete, but some agents have reported completing it in around half that time. In addition to online training that can be accessed at any time, agents must pass the Autism Travel Competency Exam (also administered online). The cost is $150, with a $99 annual renewal fee; agents must also complete annual training.

Certified agents will be listed in the IBCCES registry, and will receive a certificate, wallet card and digital badge. Agents are also listed on Autism Travel, a resource website from the IBCCES where consumers can search for a certified agent by ZIP code.

Cathy Moha, based in Garden Grove, Calif., has not yet had clients traveling with ASD-affected individuals, but she wanted to become a resource for those families. Moha also wanted to be an asset for her coworkers at Coastline Travel Advisors.

"It's a first step to something different," she said.

A screenshot of the IBCCES training program that travel agents can take to become certified.
A screenshot of the IBCCES training program that travel agents can take to become certified.

Others, like Donna Entrichel and Colleen Hulse at TravelSmiths in Point Pleasant, N.J., have arranged travel for people with ASD and their families in the past, but they wanted to become more familiar with their needs to better serve those clients.

Entrichel said, "It gives me a better understanding now, and I wish I had known that before I was working with [autistic clients] because I could have better directed them. A lot of times, people won't travel because they don't know what's out there for them."

Thibault, though, has built her entire business around helping special-needs travelers, with an emphasis on families with a member who has autism. She estimated that 75% or more of her clients are families with children who have special needs. Thibault, who has been an agent for six years, started Magical Storybook Travels two years ago and is a Certified Autism Travel Professional.

Her niche choice was personal; she has three sons, and one, now 13, has autism.

"I knew my own personal struggles with traveling with a child with autism, and I knew that because of my unique experience, I could definitely help other families with kids on the spectrum," she said.

For the most part, Thibault said, planning trips for travelers with autism involves preparation.

"I think it's just finding the right destination and then preparing them for the trip before they go to alleviate any of those stressors or anxieties," she said.

For example, her family's challenges include dealing with loud noises and anticipating when her son might encounter sensory overload.

"So, are there going to be flashing lights, loud noises, big crowds -- trying to manage that in a successful way," she said. "Do we bring our noise-canceling headphones? Do we choose alternate seating?"

Working with clients, Thibault sits down with the entire family or conducts a video chat if they're not local. She goes over the itinerary in detail and answers questions from both parents and children.

Lately, Thibault has been speaking at a variety of industry conferences, and she has seen an uptick in the number of agents who are interested in becoming certified. She brings information on the IBCCES course to pass along to those agents.

In her mind, the increase in interested agents is a good thing.

"You're going to have a client with a child with autism at some point if you do family travel," she said. "So be as prepared as possible and look into the Certified Autism Travel Professional course, because that's huge."


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