Hospitality Partners Train to Be Autism Friendly

Loudoun County could soon be a destination for people with autism, and those in the hospitality industry are getting ready to put out the proverbial welcome mat.

Employees at the Homewood Suites in Leesburg participated in a training session Wednesday to establish itself as one of about a dozen hospitality partners county-wide that are autism-friendly businesses.

With the Ashburn-based George Washington University Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorder Institute set to begin an innovative research and specialist training program at the end of the year, Visit Loudoun has partnered with Inova Loudoun Hospital and the university to ensure the county is a welcoming place for people with sensory processing disorder or autism. It has identified about a dozen hospitality partners—including hotels, restaurants, and attractions—fitting a range of tastes and budgets to implement a special training to help employees support families traveling with an adult or child with autism or SPD.

The Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders, based out of the University of Missouri, has created a training program for hospitality industry employees to ensure they provide a welcoming environment to these families. The GWU program, run by Dr. Kevin Pelphrey, is expected to attract research study participants that will stay in Loudoun for days or weeks, even up to a month.

“We want to make sure while they’re here we provide the very best in hospitality, be welcoming and ensure a safe environment,” Visit Loudoun CEO Beth Erickson said. “I think on many levels this is a really groundbreaking opportunity as we’re positioning Loudoun County as sensory-processing disorder and autism friendly.”

Karen O’Connor, an assistant research professor with the Thompson Center, led Wednesday morning’s training session. She provided the dozen employees in attendance with some cues to look for in terms of identifying behaviors or characteristics in children or adults with autism or SPD. She said, for many families, traveling to unfamiliar areas and staying with adults can be extremely stressful, both for parents and children alike. Providing the needed accommodations and care can go a long way into establishing a hotel as a welcoming environment for those with autism or SPD, she said.

“When families come to this area for these studies and they know you have this training, they’re much more likely to come to your hotel. It widens your customer base,” O’Connor said.

In fact, she noted, it represents a trillion-dollar market.

There are three areas where hospitality employees can provide support to these families: communication, comfort, and safety, O’Connor said. Making visual menus available to guests, and even picture books of what guests can expect, may be helpful. O’Connor noted that communication abilities vary for each individual with autism or SPD, so making visual materials available is especially helpful.

Communication goes a long way in ensuring that staff is meeting a family’s needs, she stressed. The front desk can do its parts by asking guests when making a reservation if they or anyone in their traveling party has any special needs, and letting housekeeping and other staff know about those needs.

O’Connor provided an example of a young child who was particularly attached to his Legos. The family, who still desired daily housekeeping services like clean towels and turn-down service, made staff aware that the Legos on a table in the hotel room should not be touched, while the rest of the room could be cleaned as usual.

Some children or adults with autism or SPD also may have certain fears, like vacuums or elevators, so accommodating them in rooms in a less chaotic part of the hotel may be necessary. Providing distraction items, like spinning toys or balls, at the front desk for use in the lobby or dining area is another good tool, O’Connor said.

Another helpful tool would be to provide safety kits in the families rooms that includes items such as a door alarm that beeps when someone leaves the room. Also letting families know about access to pools or bodies of water, which can be a hazard, is important for children or adults who may wander, she said.

Ultimately, the most important thing hotel staff can do is provide support, but recognize the fact that parents or family members are the experts in their loved ones’ care and needs.

Erickson said Visit Loudoun hopes to have the training program fully implemented and staff trained in the dozen participating businesses by the end of the year, when Pelphrey’s research study begins. Specific codes will also be created for hotel reservations so hotel staff will be aware when guests who are a part of the study will be arriving at their hotel, she said.

Jena Randolph, also an assistant research professor at the Thompson Center, applauded the county for its desire to be a welcoming environment for those with autism or SPD.

“It’s just wonderful that Loudoun County really wants to embrace this community,” she said. “It’s important to think about how can we be an area of excellence for this community.”

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