Safety in Numbers

Lisa Van LooMarch 25, 2020
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First Place Phoenix residents enjoy Mesa’s Certified Autism Centers, including Jake’s Unlimited.; Photo courtesy First Place
First Place Phoenix residents enjoy Mesa’s Certified Autism Centers, including Jake’s Unlimited.; Photo courtesy First Place

The Phoenix area is becoming a safe place for people with sensory issues.

It’s not easy to see if someone is living with autism. But in certain settings, it can be felt, as those with autism struggle with social interactions, become overwhelmed or express their discomfort more vocally. The local hospitality industry and the city of Mesa have taken steps to better accommodate guests with nonvisible special needs, a sector of the travel industry estimated to include 32 million people, according to the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

Visit Mesa CEO Marc Garcia led the charge, blazing a trail that resulted in the tourism organization and the city becoming the first entities of their kind in the nation to become autism-certified by IBCCES. To become certified, a designated percentage of customer-facing employees in a business undergoes training within the field of autism so they have a better understanding of how to interact with guests living with autism. As the father of an elementary school-age son with autism, Garcia saw an opportunity for cities, businesses and tourism organizations to become more inclusive.

“I knew [it would be successful] when we said this was the right decision, and it is proving to be just that,” Garcia says. “The Mesa business community outside the travel industry has responded, and they’re trying to be a part of this.” At least 60 Mesa businesses, hundreds of city employees and thousands of community members participated.

Pals Experiences, an Arizona-based nonprofit that trumpets inclusion for people of all abilities, worked with the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia to create a first-in-the-nation partnership catering to visitors with special sensitivities. It provides digital autism and anxiety management tools to resort guests: videos, guides and tips on partner destinations to make them more accessible, just as ramps help visitors in wheelchairs. “We measure impact digitally, since all of our tools are digital,” says founder Melanie Isaacs, who has a background in education and zoology. “Our videos have been watched over 65,000 times. We have 38 Pal Places in 11 states, working with 14 brands.”

For Garcia, partnership possibilities are endless, from experiential destinations such as museums and activity centers, to respite services and specialized childcare. “It’s rounding out the whole experience in a very meaningful way,” he says.