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When an individual is living with autism, anything can be a possible trigger: a movie theater that plays an audio track a little too loudly, a crowded restaurant or even a confined space.
It’s environmental factors like these that can often make it difficult for families living with autism to take a vacation — especially if it’s onboard a crowded cruise ship.
But two years ago, Royal Caribbean International took on the challenge, making history by becoming the first cruise line to earn Autism Friendly Certification from Autism on the Seas, the leading developmental disability service provider for the cruise industry.
Its Autism Friendly program originally included priority check-in, boarding and departure; special dietary accommodations; and autism-specific staff training within Adventure Ocean, the cruise line’s children’s program.
As the partnership became more developed, however, so did the services offered to families. This past year saw the addition of sensory-friendly movies, a toy-lending program and the launch of the “social story,” a guide to cruising available to parents online through Royal Caribbean’s website. And, most recently, the cruise line celebrated the addition of The Autism Channel onboard Quantum-, Oasis-, Freedom-, Voyager- and Radiance-class ships, free to stream on LED, flat-panel smart televisions in all staterooms.
And now, as Royal Caribbean enters its third year of partnership with Autism on the Seas, the cruise line continues to cater to this market and enhance the amenities available onboard.
“Autism is not easily understood,” said Ron Pettit, ADA and access compliance consultant for Royal Caribbean. “People understand mobility disabilities, visual disabilities and hearing disabilities because they’re so obvious and they’re very visible.”
Because each family’s needs are different, Pettit said that clients are able to pick and choose the features that will be most beneficial to them.
“Our program is very much a la carte,” he said. “You can use everything, or only elements that help you.”
Currently, Royal Caribbean holds Silver-level Autism Friendly Certification (the stages of certification include Bronze, Silver, Gold and Diamond levels). But, according to Pettit, 2016 will bring with it Gold-level certification training fleetwide.
“With Gold status, we’re going to have advanced training with our youth staff that goes into the more challenging situations they may face,” Pettit said. “We will also extend awareness training to the rest of the shipboard staff.”
Additionally, Pettit said that the first quarter of 2016 will include an update to the “social story.” Although it is currently geared toward the pier and boarding experience, Pettit said it will be expanded to include other aspects of the cruise experience. A pre-cruise planning guide for parents is also in the works.
“We’re excited about this, because Royal Caribbean has a stellar customer service standard,” Pettit said. “We’ve been dealing with families with autism successfully for years, and our staff has been hungry for additional information. We’ll have dedicated autism training and we’re excited to be able to start offering that.”
Vicki Freed, senior vice president for sales, trade support and service, says she is proud of the “cruise line’s investment into this segment of the market.”
“It can be challenging for families living with autism to take a vacation,” Freed said. “And vacations are so important for everybody, especially families who are under a lot of stress. They need to have confidence that their children will be well looked after and well taken care of.”
Pettit hopes agents realize that selling these cruises needs to be a “two-way conversation.”
“We want travel agents to be knowledgeable about this program,” Pettit said. “When a client has a question, we want agents to speak with confidence. Travel agents need to ask questions and find out what a family’s needs are before booking.”
Current Autism Services for Families Onboard Royal Caribbean:- Priority status for check-in, boarding and departure
- Special dietary accommodations
- Adventure Ocean youth program grouping for children 3 to 11 years old
- Teen Program with teen-only hangouts and activities
- Adventure Ocean youth program toilet-trained policy exception
- Family-friendly movies shown in a low-lit setting with low volume
- Toy lending bags with autism-friendly toys (including non-toxic crayons, markers, building blocks and picture books) to be used in Adventure Ocean or in a family’s stateroom
- A youth staff tour, consultation and activities that cater to an individual’s specific needs
- A “social story” that explains the cruising experience, available to parents before the cruise itself
- Complimentary on-demand programming, featuring The Autism Channel, available in all staterooms onboard Quantum-, Oasis-, Freedom-, Voyager- and Radiance-class ships on LED flat-panel interactive televisions