It could have sparked a meltdown, landing in a strange city and driving a child who needs routine and predictability to a Sonoran Desert park full of scorpions, black widow spiders and rattlesnakes for a full moon hike. But my 10-year-old son, Charlie, took an instant liking to Arizona’s Lost Dutchman State Park, probably because of the philosophical storytelling of ranger Jackie Vallejos, and the feeling of anonymity that came with joining 40 strangers to explore the unfamiliar landscape.
Is anyone scared of a mouse or a grasshopper, the ranger asked at the start of the 90-minute night hike. How about venomous desert creatures such as spiders and snakes?
“A lot of us see a creature that we perceive as dangerous and we pre-emptively want to attack it in self-preservation,” Vallejos said. “But knowing that they only attack in self-defence, and that they’re just trying to go about their day, has anyone – like the snakes or the spider – felt misunderstood? Maybe you’ve been attacked by someone that doesn’t know what you’re going through?”
The ranger didn’t know it, but it was the perfect way to frame our trip to Mesa, the world’s first autism-certified city. Charlie has mild autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and goes to a private school for kids with learning and social challenges. He lives for Minecraft and Roblox, but this trip was designed to nudge him out of his comfort zone.
As the Beaver Blood Moon lunar eclipse approached, Charlie peppered the volunteer guides with questions.
“Are those white dots in the sky stars?”
“Do cactus actually have liquid in them?”
“Did you notice there’s a fallen cactus arm?”
We turned over rocks in search of scorpions that glow neon when you shine a black-light flashlight on them. We didn’t find any, but Charlie gave the desert experience the ultimate compliment: “If the next hotel has the ability to play Minecraft, I might make a desert village.”
Mesa’s certification is the result of one family’s disastrous 2018 beach vacation in California. Marc Garcia, president and chief executive officer of Visit Mesa, was travelling with his wife and then four-year-old son, Mason, who had been diagnosed with autism at 14 months. Unfortunately, Mason “had meltdown after meltdown.” And while the Garcias were used to hostile stares and judgmental whispers from the public, they were shocked to get them from the supposed “hospitality” industry.
Since Visit Mesa was going through its strategic plan, and “knowing that this was a hyper loyal consumer base,” Garcia decided to do something for the autism community upon his return. “It was not just the right thing to do, but it was the right thing to do from a business point of view.”
Garcia discovered the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), a business based in Florida and Dubai that is an industry leader in cognitive disorder training. It had an autism certification program for health care and educational institutions and had begun working with the hospitality industry. By 2019, Visit Mesa had lined up enough partners (including attractions, restaurants and hotels) to become the first autism-certified destination marketing organization in the United States. Word spread and other groups – police, fire, libraries, neighbouring communities – wanted in, and Mesa soon became the world’s first Autism Certified City.
What does that mean? Simply put, people can a plan trip to Mesa knowing that the needs of the autism community have been taken into account. Families can scour AutismTravelAz.com for lodging, dining, attractions and transportation services that have put at least 80 per cent of customer-facing staff through training to recognize and understand the developmental disability, which can cause challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, restricted interests and speech/non-verbal communication.
They can also download sensory guides for Certified Autism Centers (as determined by IBCCES), such as the i.d.e.a Museum and the Arizona Museum of Natural History. The guides, which are also posted in each venue, detail the effect that activities and interactions might have on children who experience sensory overload and might react by flapping their arms, yelling, lying on the ground or throwing things.
“It’s about how we are creating spaces that make individuals feel recognized and welcome,” said Jarrad Bittner, director of the i.d.e.a. Museum. “You can be yourself here. You can be quirky. You can do whatever you need to do to interact with your family.”
The museum – whose name stands for imagination, design, experience and art – loans sensory backpacks full of things to help with self-regulation, tactile input, attention focusing and body awareness. Charlie gave a weighted turtle stuffed animal a squeeze, fingered the fidget toys (he carries his own), ignored the visual timer and test-drove the noise-cancelling headphones.
They kept him calm when the museum suddenly filled with a school group. And while we passed on the stations for imaginative and collaborative play and instead went outside, Charlie became transfixed by mushrooms in the empty courtyard that disintegrated into brown dust when poked.
The Arizona Museum of Natural History was much more his jam.
Charlie didn’t want the noise-cancelling headphones or light-sensitivity glasses from the sensory kit there, but wore the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard in case we got separated. (Mesa was the first U.S. city to adopt this program, which discreetly identifies travellers who might need “a helping hand, understanding or simply more time.”)
As we waited for an indoor mountain dotted with dinosaurs to unleash a noisy, three-storey flash flood, Charlie bombarded education assistant Ali Smurawa with questions.
Why do woolly mammoths have twirly horns? How do you tell the difference between male and female dinosaurs? Why does the armadillo-like glyptotherium look like a turtle? If dinosaurs didn’t die, how good do you think humans could combat them?
“You have amazing questions,” Smurawa said to Charlie, before telling me that staff completed training to better understand autism and become an inclusive space. “We really just want everybody to come in and enjoy and feel comfortable while they’re here.”
Restricted eating is a hallmark of ASD, so during our time in Mesa we mainly kept it simple with chicken nuggets and burgers rounded out by gas station hot dogs and supermarket snacks. But on a visit to the artsy community of Ajo via Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in nearby Coolidge, I successfully introduced Charlie to chicken tacos and prickly pear lemonade. Back in Mesa at Organ Stop Pizza, a landmark eatery that’s home to the world’s largest Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ, we stayed long enough to hear two songs.
Charlie was much more fascinated by the organ pipe cactuses at the national monument named after them, 2.5 hours southwest of Mesa near Ajo. He spotted a walking stick insect and engaged with interpretation ranger Kim Girard.
“He is pretty cool – wow good spot,” Girard said. “He really blends in.”
“Why is he standing still?”
“He’s thinking. He’s kind of sensing what’s around him. He’s wondering, is it safe to keep going, or should I turn and go this way?”
Ultimately, like most travelling kids, Charlie doesn’t need much to be happy – just WiFi and a pool. And so our Mesa trip started in the pool at the Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West and ended at the pool at Delta Hotels Phoenix Mesa. Both are autism-certified hotels. The Sheraton, for example, has sensory toys and quiet spaces at the ready, and will use different cleaning products for guests with smell sensitivities. The only thing that triggered Charlie’s anxiety there, though, was the loud and rattling elevator, so we quietly took the stairs.
Chuck Barron was the Sheraton’s general manager when it became the first Mesa hotel to agree to autism certification for management and front-line staff. “It’s an untapped market,” he said. “From my understanding of the training, no one wants to be treated differently, right? Everyone could be having a unique scenario or a unique reaction to something, but they just want to be treated the way everyone wants to be treated – with compassion and understanding.”
For our last day in Mesa, I forced Charlie to go to goat yoga at Welcome Home Ranch in Gilbert, just outside of the city.
“I genuinely despise yoga,” he said.
Little did he know that Arizona Goat Yoga bills itself as “the only pet show you are a part of,” claims to have sparked the worldwide craze in 2015, and is a regular on reality shows.
“Get ready for goats coming in hot,” shouted company co-founder/yoga instructor Sarah Williams as the adorable animals dashed about in tutus and ‘80s outfits. “If you can grab your foot, great. If not, you’re in a field of goats. No one’s judging.”
Eighty of us awkwardly attempted downward-facing poses as 15 frisky goats and two alpacas ran around and climbed on our backs. Charlie was unexpectedly charmed despite the intrusion into his personal space. “My original thought was that it was going to be a 0.5 out of 10, but now it’s an 8.7,” he said with an unusually large grin. “The goats are pretty cool.”
As the goat yoga folks kept saying, “goats don’t judge, goats just love.” It seemed a fitting mantra for autism-friendly Mesa.
The writer was a guest of Visit Mesa and the Arizona Office of Tourism. They did not review or approve the story before publication.
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