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How can tourism venues become more accessible to people with ASD?

How can tourism venues become more accessible to people with ASD?
Author: Ana Alves
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Discussion Paper

This paper aimed to address the issues regarding accessibility and inclusivity of people with ASD in tourism venues and what they can do to make visitors with autism feel more welcome. It provides a best case study that highlights how a specific tourism venue can adapt to become more accessible for people with ASD as well as providing solutions to tackle the problem of inclusivity of people on the autism spectrum.

Key Words:
Autism, tourism venues, accessible tourism, visual support, training

Accessible tourism allows people of all physical and mental abilities to participate and enjoy tourism experiences. Most academics only focus on physical disability when discussing accessibility, such as the need for wheelchairs or hearing loops. They often forget the need to address how cognitive disorders can also impact the visitor experience of an individual and what can be done to make them feel more included (Freund et al., 2018). ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is "a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain". People with ASD frequently have difficulties with social communication and interaction, as well as restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests and various learning methods. Therefore, when going to public places, parents and family members of people with autism often suffer from judgement from others. There is little understanding and awareness of autism as a disorder, often making them feel isolated and marginalised in society. Autism is becoming more common in our society, affecting up to 2.8 million people in the UK.

People with autism have very unique travel experiences to others. Routines are a crucial aspect of their daily lives as they create order and stability. However, when changed, it can be challenging for them to control their emotions, leading to parents and family members trying their best to avoid it. Furthermore, autistic people often have sensory overload, which can negatively impact their visits to tourism venues. Managers and staff must ensure that, when autistic people visit the attraction or venue, the sensory overload is limited, such as dimming the lights and minimising the smells from cafes and restaurants. Individuals with autism and their families suffer a lot of prejudice and judgement when they visit public spaces, as others do not understand the difficulties surrounding social norms and behaviour. As a result, many parents and family members of people on the autism spectrum choose to stay at home to avoid these judgements and explain their behaviour. In today's society, autistic children and adults are stigmatised, with many expected to lack social skills and experience high levels of psychological distress (Mazumder and Thompson-Hodgetts, 2019). Therefore, for autistic people to feel less isolated and socially excluded, this stigma must be addressed as a society. Making the tourism industry more inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities is one way to start this change.

One way in which tourism venues can become more accessible to people with autism is by having different opening times. Tourism venues can provide a better experience for autistic people by following this strategy, as they will not have to queue for long periods, and the venue will be less crowded than during regular opening hours, also reducing sensory overload. Another common strategy is the provision of quiet rooms, which can be a more straightforward solution for venues that cannot extend their opening hours. Tourism venues that adopt quiet rooms allow autistic visitors to retreat to those areas if they feel overwhelmed, giving them space to deal with their emotions without being surrounded by others (Marwati et al., 2021). In addition, visual support is crucial for developing people with ASD and can help prepare them before visiting the venue. These would include visual stories which describe what a day in the venue will look like, helping reduce levels of distress in people with autism. The addition of 360° photos and videos of the venue would also help family members prepare autistic people for a visit, as they would better understand the venue's layout and know what to expect. Lastly, staff training is crucial to make individuals with ASD feel better understood and less isolated when visiting the venue. Staff members will have the skills to communicate with them and provide appropriate assistance if needed.

In conclusion, much has been done by specific tourism venues such as the Science Museum and the ZLS to cater to people with cognitive and behavioural needs. However, with the number of people with autism increasing, tourism venues must ensure that their needs are heard. They must adhere to the correct solutions to make autistic people feel less isolated and ignored by society and know that there are places they can visit where they will be understood.

Reference List:
Freund, D., Chiscano, M. C., Hernandez-Maskivker, G., Guiz, M., Inesta, A. and Castello, M. (2019) Enhancing the hospitality customer experience of families with children on the autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Tourism Research. 21(5), 606-614.

Marwati, A., Dewi, O. C. and Wiguna, T. (2021) Visual-Sensory-Based Quiet Room for Reducing Maladaptive Behavior and Emotion in Autistic Individuals: A Review. Advances in Health Sciences Research, (34), 365-369.

Mazumder, R. and Thompson-Hodgetts, S. (2019) Stigmatization of Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their Families: a Scoping Study. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 6, 96-107.