Autism Friendly Holidays At Beaches Resorts - The Lewington Family

It's World Autism Awareness Week, and at Beaches Resorts we are passionate about showing support to ALL families that join us in the Caribbean, in particular those with autism and disabilities. We believe all children should be given a chance to enjoy a break in the sun, that's why Beaches has partnered with The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), to create the Caribbean’s First Autism-Friendly Kids Camps.

To make the weeks events, we are sharing a real-life family trip to Beaches Ocho Rios. Erika Lewington and her husband, Nigel, visited Beaches Ocho Rios in 2019 with their children Oscar and Henry, after hearing about the resort’s dedicated autism programme.

Environmental changes affect people with autism, so Erika has kindly offered to share her experience with her eldest son Henry, and tips for preparing for a long-haul holiday. Find out how Beaches Resorts also assisted to make the transition as smooth as possible, catering to Henry and his individual needs.

What sort of experiences have you had on family holidays in the past?

Our family holidays reached a low point when, at a Florida resort, our son Henry, who is on the autistic spectrum, could only be persuaded to leave the room wearing ear defenders and sunglasses. We had tried hard to make the trip work but, overwhelmed by the busy pool areas and constant music, this was his way of blocking everything out. Even the feel of sand at the glorious beach distressed him and it was heart-breaking to see him so unhappy. His repeated requests to go home made us swear never to put him in that situation again.

What does Beaches Resorts offer for autistic children?

Holidays should be a joy but travelling with a child on the autistic spectrum can be challenging. They can feel anxious about everything, from the general unknown to queues, delays, accommodation, new food, new people and even the weather.

All three Beaches Resorts in Negril and Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Turks & Caicos offer services and facilities designed to ensure every family can enjoy the Company’s award-winning Luxury Included® holiday experience in a safe, fun and comfortable manner tailored to their specific needs.

In 2019, Beaches Resorts became the first resort company in the world to attain the Advanced Certified Autism Center (ACAC) accreditation by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). This accreditation focuses on the Company’s kids camp, entertainment and watersports operations, as well as staff from other areas of the resort.

Erika's Image: Henry giving the Cookie Monster a cuddle!

All three resorts offer families:
• A personalised pre-travel questionnaire to identify requests and preferences with a dedicated Special Services team to assist in the holiday planning process
• A Culinary Concierge programme to support specific dietary restrictions and special requests
• Modified check-in options for private, in-room, check-in and the availability of sensory toys for children during check-in
• Identification of quiet spaces during noisier times of the day and evening
• Modified design and decoration in Kids Camps and Entertainment areas to create a more sensory-friendly environment
• The option to pre-book a ‘One-on-One Beaches Buddy’ offering personalised, private childcare with a ‘buddy’ who is certified by IBCCES, for a nominal fee
• All Beaches Resorts’ watersports teams have completed training with PADI and IBCCES which allows the resorts to offer tailored diving programmes for children on the autism spectrum

As part of its long-standing partnership with Sesame Street®, Beaches Resorts also features Julia, a Sesame Street walk-around character on the autism spectrum, at each property. 4-year-old Julia hosts a daily activity called Amazing Art with Julia where she highlights how people can express themselves through art, giving children the opportunity to experiment and create their own artwork. As part of efforts to increase awareness of autism, all Beaches Resorts staff also underwent sensitivity training with "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children" resources.

Why did you choose Beaches Ocho Rios?

We heard through one of my friends that Beaches Resorts offers a provision for children with autism.  Of the three all-inclusive resorts available, two were in Jamaica, somewhere my family and I had long wanted to visit. We picked the Ocho Rios resort because it seemed to offer everything we wanted in terms of facilities (including an on-site water park), while also being a manageable size.

How did you prepare for the trip and the long-haul flight?

Luckily, Henry is comfortable with flying so for us it wasn’t too bad. I made sure that I took along some of his favourite things in our hand luggage so that he felt at ease, as well as his noise cancelling headphones.

To help prepare for the trip, we showed Henry videos of the hotel beforehand to get him used to the idea of staying somewhere else. I’d recommend this practice to any other parents as it really helped, and everyone slept like babies on the first night that we arrived.

A few weeks before travelling, we also received a questionnaire designed to help the hotel best meet Henry’s needs. After years of feeling like an outlier, this acknowledgement made me feel an enormous sense of relief.

How would you describe your experience Beaches Ocho Rios?

The morning after we arrived at the resort, Henry took to the buffet breakfast system right away and was confident enough to leave us and get his own food – a real breakthrough. Like many children with ASD, he is a very restrictive eater, but the range in the Beaches restaurants was extensive and he even tried some new foods.

The resort is super-organised, which was great, as order and routine helps people with autism control their environment. A complimentary concierge service helped us create an itinerary via a weekly planner and made all our bookings to ensure there were no disappointments, with which Henry finds it hard to cope.

Beaches also produces a daily resort newspaper, a huge benefit, as it meant Henry could know exactly what was happening and we could avoid particularly busy or noisy areas.

Both our sons loved the huge range of activities. Henry particularly enjoyed snorkelling, saying he liked the peaceful feeling of being with the fish and part of the sea. Like many children with ASD, he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), meaning he is easily distracted and bores quickly. This can be tricky, as his autism also makes him anxious in new environments and with new people.
These behaviours have thrown staff at most kids’ clubs we’ve visited, making them unusable. But the Beaches kids camps (all complimentary) are all certified autism centres via The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which ensures that staff have the knowledge, temperament, skills and expertise to cater to all children. The resort also has a partnership with Sesame Street, and one of its costumed characters is a girl with autism, called Julia, who leads art classes.

One of Henry’s biggest challenges is that he is incredibly socially anxious, so we paired him with one of Beaches’ specially trained, one-to-one “buddies” (at US$8/£6 an hour). Dhalyan took everything in her stride and was completely unflappable. Henry immediately relaxed in her company, allowing him to explore some of the facilities he was too nervous to go to on his own.

Dhalyan helped Henry build confidence and he told us he felt understood and liked. I cannot tell you what a revelation that was for us as parents: he was very proud of himself and actively set himself new challenges, on the last day experiencing a sense of freedom after visiting the water park with his brother and ordering himself a drink from the all-inclusive, swim-up bar. I feel quite emotional thinking back to it, but the time my husband and I spent reading or walking along the beach, knowing Henry was happy, was blissful. His progress also let his brother enjoy some of his favoured activities without being a carer.

Erika's Image: Henry build up the courage to explore Beaches Ocho Rios .

Our time in Jamaica reminded us that a holiday should be about relaxing and trying new things with loved ones. I hope more resorts recognise that not all families are the same. As understanding of autism grows, surely other companies will see that it is worth their while to offer services for families like us. After all, everyone deserves a holiday.

Interview quoted from an interview with the Telegraph. Original article can be found here:

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