When it comes to people, the hospitality industry meets them all. There are the guests you only see at check-in/check-out times to the guests who phone reception every 5 minutes with requests or (more likely) complaints. Families, couples, business people. And with a rate of approximately one in one hundred people, chances are you’ve dealt with someone on the autistic spectrum, whether adult or child. Autistic people, like neurotypical people, are all different, but there some things you can do to help make staying in an unfamiliar place more comfortable and less distressing.
Any member of staff who is in contact with the guests, particularly the front-of-house team, should receive training in understanding how autistic people communicate. It’s important to remember that many autistic people find direct eye contact uncomfortable, so it may not be obvious who they’re addressing. Some won’t want to shake hands; others will every time they see you.
Being in a new place can be disorientating, and not just for finding your way to the tourist attractions. Knowing the ‘home base’, the area around the hotel, can provide reassurance, especially for distressed children. Having a clear, easy-to-read map of the key shops and landmarks around the hotel can make it more familiar and less overwhelming.
Similarly, providing a map of the hotel itself, and creating ‘social stories’, with simple text and images, of procedures such as the fire drill, can help to allay any anxieties. Making these available on the hotel website can help families to prepare their autistic child for the holiday.
Busier areas of the hotel, like in the dining room, have a greater risk of causing sensory overload or distress in an autistic person. The combination of sights, sounds, smells and others’ movements can all flood the brain with information, which can be difficult to process. Keep part of the dining room separate so it can provide a quieter space for those who might need it.
Autistic people often have specific dietary requirements due to food allergies or intolerances. If it isn’t possible to find these out beforehand, make sure that there is a good range of options available in both the dining room and for room service.
Bear in mind, also, that morning routines for families with an autistic child can be disrupted by the strange environment, so consider being flexible with meal times.
As with the reception staff, anyone supervising or working in the Kids’ Club of a hotel or resort should receive specific training in caring for autistic children, particularly in recognising the signs of distress and sensory overload. It’s important to remember that how one autistic child behaves is not an indication of how another will behave. Maintaining an open communication with the child’s parents can help to identify the signs and likely triggers.
If signs of distress do become apparent, having a quieter area set up where the child can do puzzles, colouring, or just read, can help to avert a meltdown. Provide the child with a few options, as they may have difficulty making a choice if they don’t know what the options are.
Sleeping in a strange bed can be distressing for some autistic children. However, they may settle quickly if they are watching their favourite programme or film. Consider the range of kids’ TV channels available in the room, and perhaps provide DVD players in family rooms.
Autistic people are often sensitive to chemicals found in toiletries, so consider stocking the bathrooms with hypoallergenic products.
When distressed, some autistic children will want to find somewhere they consider safe and are likely to run off. Providing stick-on motion detectors for doors and any windows without restricted opening can give the parents peace of mind, as they will then know if their child tries to leave.
Remember, happy customers will tell their friends, and families who can enjoy a stress-free trip are likely to come back.