Why Staying at an Autism-Friendly Resort Makes for a Better Vacation for Everyone
Traveling with a child on the spectrum can be difficult. Checking into a resort with a staff that understands autism and reacts with empathy makes all the difference for our family.
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
“Welcome home,” greeted the staff at Beaches Negril, handing our family refreshing, rolled-up cold cloths as we tumbled out of the airport shuttle and into the humid night air. After a seven-hour plane ride to Montego Bay, followed by a twisty, 90-minute drive along the coast while the Jamaican sky turned from orange to indigo, it was a relief to arrive at the all-inclusive family resort in Negril without incident. Our 15-year-old son, Bennett, has autism, so going places hasn’t always been so smooth.
We learned early on to choose destinations that feature water and nature, two of Bennett’s favorite things. And it helps to prepare him in advance so he knows what to expect on vacation—travel’s inherent break with routine can pose challenges for individuals on the spectrum. More recently, we’ve zeroed in on cities, attractions and resorts that are autism certified. This means staff who regularly interact with guests have received autism sensitivity training; in theory, they understand how to recognize and respond to the developmental disability that affects one in 36 children in the United States.
This Beaches autism-friendly resort checked all the above boxes, and its “welcome home” greeting promised a week in paradise that could be as easy as never leaving home. By the end of the first day of our Caribbean island vacation, it rang true: Bennett had hung out with his Beaches Buddy, Monique Williams, who did laps with him on the waterslide and took him sailing with the water sports crew. Our daughter, Avery, was all set for the Discover Scuba program. And we had dinner reservations at each of the resort’s five sit-down restaurants.
But most encouraging was Bennett’s response when we asked him what he wanted to do the following day: “I would like to go to the beach with Monique.”
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more travel, humor, cleaning, tech and fun facts all week long.
What it means to be a Certified Autism Center
Courtesy Lisa Kadane
As part of an effort to become more inclusive, all three Beaches all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean became autism certified in 2017, and recertified in 2021, through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). At Beaches Negril, the entire Kids Camp department, as well as 80% of the staff on other teams, such as entertainment and water sports, received online autism training.
“It involves sensory training, how to deal with different situations or different types of children living with autism,” explains Kids Camp manager Sharon Rushie. “It also teaches us how to transition from one activity, or from one location, to the next.”
Before we arrived in Jamaica, I filled out a pre-travel questionnaire that provided Bennett’s diagnosis, abilities, triggers and likes and dislikes, as well as any food allergies or aversions (the resort can accommodate dietary restrictions). We felt confident waving goodbye to Bennett when he was with Monique because she’d been armed with a cheat sheet—she knew he loves swimming and french fries but dislikes shrimp and waiting in lines.
This Beaches autism-friendly resort also has a sensory guide that rates resort areas, activities, events and restaurants on a scale of 1 (low sensory) to 10 (high sensory) in the areas of touch, taste, sound, smell and sight. We read through the guide before the trip so we knew that if the noisy, splashy Pirate’s Island Water Park overwhelmed Bennett, he could chill out in the zen-like Sunken Garden, one of nine designated quiet areas.
Beaches Buddies provide even more support
Courtesy Lisa Kadane
What makes this one of the best Caribbean resorts for families with neurodiverse children is the way it goes above and beyond. Take the Beaches Buddies program, for instance.
For guests with higher support needs (or families that want some respite during their holiday), the resort’s special services program can pair them up with a Beaches Buddy for an additional charge ($20 an hour for families with a child with autism). Since Bennett needs help with activities and engagement—and because my husband and I wanted a few hours here and there to just read a book under a palapa or go for our first-ever couples massage—we requested this service.
Thankfully, Bennett immediately bonded with Monique. Though he couldn’t verbalize it adequately, his smiles and excitement when it came to meeting up with her for glass-bottom boat rides and water slide marathons spoke volumes. She also supported him during an art class with Julia, the Sesame Street character with autism (Beaches Resorts are affiliated with Sesame Street, so characters like Grover and Elmo make regular appearances).
“They say once you meet a kid with autism, you meet one kid with autism. You can’t expect the same thing with every kid,” Monique told me outside of Kids Camp one afternoon, reflecting on what she’d learned from her autism training. “Once you show them love and take the time to get to know them, they respond to that.”
Water can be therapeutic
Courtesy Lisa Kadane
At this Beaches autism-friendly resort, it wasn’t just the Kids Camp staff who worked hard to show Bennett the time of his life.
“How’s my man Bennett?” asked Fabian at the water sports hut when we walked up to rent a beach tricycle. “I took him sailing yesterday and said, ‘Do you want to go slow or fast?’ And he said, ‘Fast!'”
Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. Bennett has always loved being in and on the water while on a vacation at the beach; it seems to relax him and give him the right amount of sensory stimulation. One morning, we tailed a southern stingray from the top of a stand-up paddleboard (Bennett sat while I navigated); another day, I paddled us in a double kayak down the length of Seven Mile Beach, its blue tourmaline water sparkling in the morning sun.
But the week’s water highlight was taking Bennett on his first successful snorkeling trip. Beaches Resorts have adapted the Professional Association of Diving Instructors’s scuba diving program for guests on the spectrum, so I caught up with water sports manager Patrick Daley for some snorkeling tips. He recommended getting Bennett comfortable wearing a mask and snorkel in the pool before moving to the calm, shallow seawater close to shore. By the time we boated out to the offshore reef, Bennett was ready.
The guide fitted him with a life preserver under his arms to prop him up during the snorkel, and soon he was kicking behind me with his face in the water, reaching toward yellow-and-blue-striped French grunts and floating above clusters of elkhorn coral while angelfish and butterfly fish darted below.
Recapturing the magic of travel
Courtesy Lisa Kadane
Watching Bennett snorkel in nature’s aquarium brought home the magic of travel: its ability to push us out of our comfort zones so we can have new experiences and the delight of doing something for the first time. Our daughter had felt this a few days prior when she swam with stingrays and a sea turtle on her first ocean dive (she now plans to pursue her scuba certification).
What set this trip apart was the number of magic moments throughout the week. We realized our daughter, at 17, wasn’t too old to hug Oscar the Grouch. We laughed watching the Ernie and Bert characters disco dance ahead of the weekly Sesame Street parade and high-fived Bennett for putting up with the noise—he wore provided headphones to mute the cacophonous marching band. We listened to a Jamaican steel drum band play on the beach at sunset. Mostly, we didn’t want to go home.
Being at an all-inclusive resort made everything easier, but much of the magic was generated by the knowledgeable and patient staff. Their enthusiasm, kindness and mad skills at remembering everyone’s names improved the vacation experience for all guests, not just neurodiverse travelers.
We returned home with sand from the beach, sun-kissed memories and a kid who wouldn’t stop talking about his new home away from home. Even now I’ll ask, “What was your favorite thing about Jamaica, Bennett?” And he answers without fail, “Monique.”