Myrtle Beach is nation’s first autism-friendly vacation destination

Around the South

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — Summer in the Grand Strand can be a nightmare for someone with autism. It’s busy. It’s crowded. It’s bright and hot and loud and generally overwhelming for those who are sensitive to light and sound. 

But the winter could be the perfect solution for families of someone on the spectrum — and a boost to the Grand Strand’s economy. 

At least, that’s what one local organization is hoping.

“That is really the goal, and to make our autism families happy,” said Becky Large, the executive director of the Champion Autism Network (or CAN), an organization that aims to make the area more welcoming to those with the developmental disorder. 

Large’s work in the autism community began after she relocated in 2012 to the area from New Jersey. Large, who has a child on the spectrum, soon learned there weren’t many autism resources in the area, and were even fewer that supported families. 

Her efforts led to the start of sensory-friendly movie events in 2013, which includes lights being adjusted, sound lowered and an environment where viewers are welcome to get up and move around. 

In 2014, the organization received a grant to begin training restaurants on being autism-friendly. Municipalities started declaring themselves as “autism friendly” a couple of years later, and today, CAN has about 2,000 families in its card program, which allows families to show the card at participating locations and be bumped to the front of lines, get expedited service and discounts.

Large said that those who have a child with autism want to have those traditional family experiences.

“The top thing that our families want to be able to do is just to go out to a restaurant,” she said. 

Trainings the organization has done at restaurants including teaching how to recognize if someone with autism is on the property and teaching about potential behaviors they might encounter. The CAN cards, Large said, allow families to discreetly let a business know someone in the family has autism. CAN also hopes that discounts will encourage families to share their situations with businesses instead of keeping them hidden.

“They rarely want to admit that they have somebody on the autism spectrum because there is so much judgement involved,” she said. 

After working with restaurants, Large turned her attention to resorts and attractions.

“I started to realize we live in this fabulous tourist destination, this gorgeous beach area, and if we want to support families with autism, why not invite the autism world to come play with us at the beach?” she said. 

Trainings have now branched out to resorts. CAN has also created online, on-demand training.

It’s all in the hopes that families with children on the spectrum can have less stress about vacations and having to educate everyone around them. 

“There are a lot of those situations that are really challenging,” she said. 

Quiet rooms, or areas where a child can decompress in stressful situations, can go a long way toward helping families.

“The potential for a tantrum or a meltdown is huge the minute you leave the house,” Large said. 

At resorts, being autism-friendly can include placing families in rooms away from elevators and ice machines or avoiding the ground floor. 

As word spreads in the autism community, Large expects more visitors and businesses to participate in the program.

Being autism-friendly, she said, can be easy. 

“It doesn’t cost anything to turn down the lights and turn down the music and have kind staff who are open and not judgemental,” she said. 

About 1 in 54 children will be diagnosed with autism, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With diagnosis rates continuing to rise, autism-friendly travel has become an important and growing trend, according to Karen Riordan, the president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.  

Riordan said Myrtle Beach was the first — and she believes only — vacation destination to be autism-friendly. 

“Because Myrtle Beach has always been a family-friendly destination, it’s vital that we recognize the challenges autism families may face when taking a vacation and help to alleviate those barriers,” Riordan said in an emailed statement. “We want everyone to feel welcome in our destination, and obviously we want them to come back again and again. The feedback from families who have taken advantage of our autism-friendly offerings has been positive.”

Riordan points to the Myrtle Beach International Airport’s quiet room, attractions that offer noise-canceling headphones and Project Lifesaver, which is a tracking wristband available at the Myrtle Beach Welcome Center that can be used within the area. 

Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach offers sensory-friendly events once a month during its slow season. About 25 families attend each event, according to Jera Wunder, the assistant manager of admissions and photo. 

Although its admission numbers decrease in the winter, the traffic at the events stays steady. Wunder said the aquarium is looking into expanding how often they do the events and are looking at hosting nighttime, autism-friendly events, as well. 

The aquarium began researching how to be more autism-friendly more than three years ago.

“We want to make sure that everyone who comes has a great time,” she said. 

That included having employees watch a video that shows what a child with autism might experience going into an environment with loud noises, bright lights and packed crowds.

“We wanted staff to take a look at that video and just imagine,” Wunder said. 

At the autism-friendly events, the aquarium turns off the sounds, adjusts lights in most areas, adds paper towels around touch tanks and turns off the moving walkway.

“Although it is extremely fun to ride, it is very overwhelming and extremely stimulating,” Wunder said. 

Throughout the year, the aquarium has a quiet room available and offers free noise-canceling headphones during the visit. Wunder said other accommodations can be made by visiting the aquarium’s service desk.

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