Too many visual and auditory stimuli, dietary changes, disruption of daily routine... For people with autism spectrum disorder, going on vacation to a foreign place can be a challenge, even cause real discomfort. A situation that an American municipality has decided to remedy, by making inclusivity its hobbyhorse. In Arizona, Mesa has even become over the years an exemplary city in terms of welcoming autistic people, according to a report by BBC Travel.
- Podcast Elsewhere: Singapore's hidden surprises and treasures
In November 2019, the agglomeration of 500,000 inhabitants obtained a special title. It has become the first city certified for the reception of autistic people in the world according to the IBCCES, an organization that labels places working to better take into account people with cognitive disorders. A recognition, fruit of a long work, as reported by our colleague. Everything starts from a personal experience, that of Marc Garcia, president of the tourist office of Mesa, whose son is autistic. During a family trip in 2018, he noticed how much the reception staff lacked patience with his child.
" READ ALSO "For the 2024 Olympics, I am concerned about the delay in the France in terms of accessibility"
According to a study conducted by the organization Autism Travel, which depends on the IBCCES, 87% of households with an autistic child come to give up going on vacation. Marc Garcia wanted to reverse the trend. As a first step, he trained the staff of the Mesa tourist office to interact with an audience with cognitive impairment. This involves, for example, the way in which we will discover the destination: some people, more visually sensitive, will be more interested in leaflets and brochures. Others may take more time to assimilate the information provided by the tourist office.
In 2021, Mesa took a new step forward by integrating the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, which allows tourist offices and other tourist places to be alerted to the presence of people with special needs. These places provide free bracelets, with sunflower patterns signaling the presence of visitors who require extra help.
Implementation of special schedules
In Mesa, the approach has spread to all spheres of the city. More than 60 companies and organizations have been trained to ensure that their employees are best able to accommodate "neurodiverse" people (i.e. who process the information of the majority differently. This includes autistics). One of Mesa's museums has set up special schedules, with adapted sensory experiences. More broadly, Mesa organized a special tour of the city, adapted to the families in question.
Could this approach be emulated in France? In our country, about 100,000 young people under the age of 20 and nearly 600,000 adults are autistic, according to the High Authority of Health. While associations organize specific trips to help families with an autistic child, there remains a broader problem of caring for people with visible and invisible disabilities. In the run-up to the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Tourism & Disabilities association has warned of the lack of equipped infrastructure, particularly in Paris. "I am concerned about the considerable delay taken by the France," said its president Annette Masson. "If there are a lot of requests, we will not be able to meet them. All these shortcomings will not encourage these visitors to stay a few more days for sightseeing."