Sunday, February 23, 2014

Royal Caribbean is first 'autism-friendly' cruise line

For an autistic child, a cruise can be a minefield.

Everything about the experience, from waiting to board to crowded spaces to loud noises, can be

Royal Caribbean moved to address those issues today when it became the first line to be certified as "autism-friendly," USA TODAY learned in an exclusive story.

The new designation, awarded by the travel organization Autism on the Seas, indicates the line will take specific measures to help its guests with autistic family members enjoy their cruise.

The award marks "a turning point in the travel and cruise industry," says Mike Sobbell, founder and president of Autism on the Seas. "This shows a cruise line is actually committed to and will provide services and an expectation will be there. Our working relationship with Royal Caribbean has been top of the line, bar none."

Other cruise companies have also worked with Autism on the Seas, which provides staff experienced and educated in caring for special needs individuals. The company participates in about 30 sailings per year, the bulk on Royal Caribbean, along with some on Princess, Disney, Celebrity and Carnival ships. Group cruises typically have about a dozen families with an autistic child, and the organization provides a staff member for every three people with autism.

For example, Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas will offer an Autism on the Seas "Cruise with Staff" trip leaving New Orleans on March 8. For other cruises, see

Yet the entire Royal Caribbean line now has Bronze Level certification, which means it will provide sensory-related toys, autism-friendly modification to youth activities (where appropriate), autism-friendly movies, priority boarding and dietary offerings (including gluten-free and dairy-free).

Ron Pettit, Royal Caribbean's manager of ADA & Access Compliance, says the cruise line will work with individual guests to make sure each trip is successful. "Each and every person with autism is a little different. It's not a cookie cutter accommodation process."

One tool is a personalized story book folder called a social story that will help explain to autistic children what to expect on a cruise. It covers everything from finding the stateroom to the muster drill, which can be crowded and chaotic. This can help children adapt to the unfamiliar surroundings of a cruise.

Another addition will be autism-friendly movies, which will be offered on any trip with at least five autistic passengers. These films, based on accommodations offered by some land-based theaters, will feature family-friendly films. The lights will not be completely turned off, the sound will be lower and it will be acceptable for guests to talk or walk around during the films..

Read the entire story at

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