Visit Visalia, local hospitality businesses working toward making city the first certified autism destination in California
VISALIA – Autism is a difficult diagnosis for families. Siblings often feel like they miss out on opportunities and parents are worried their children, both those diagnosed on the spectrum and those that are not, will be limited in their opportunities to experience the world.
Travel, eating out, and going to events are major concerns for parents with autistic children, and for Nellie Freeborn, they are major portions of her job as executive director of Visit Visalia. When her youngest child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of 3, Freeborn said she and her family had a lot to learn about autism. Time of day, lighting, sound, crowds, were all things which could prove to be barriers to family outings. Freeborn said she has felt the judgment of strangers who might view her child’s behavior as a lack of discipline instead of a difficult disorder of which they have no knowledge or experience.
“While it stopped us in our tracks, overtime we managed to find opportunities and ways we could continue to live a normal life,” Freeborn said. “We don’t allow it to limit us but it is limiting.”
Freeborn’s personal experience as the mother of a daughter with ASD motivated her to take on one of Visit Visalia’s most ambitious projects to date—becoming a certified autism center. Freeborn proudly proclaimed Visit Visalia as the first tourism organization in California to earn the certification at a Sept. 10 press conference in the grand ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Visalia.
“I’ve always felt Visalia is an absolute ideal destination for families with ASD and what a great opportunity my own journey provided me, so that I could help educate my community/industry to drive our destination towards awareness and inclusivity,” Freeborn said.
Freeborn said there are many easy ways to accommodate those with autism, such as hotels allowing early check in, streamlining waiting times at attractions and venues, and turning off a flickering light above a table at a restaurant. Visit Visalia will share stories on their social media as a supportive tool before embarking on their vacation. It’s Main Street office will have sensory backpacks filled with noise canceling headsets, fidget toys and a social toy which can be checked out by families who may have forgotten those things at home.
With the help of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Visalians, Visit Visalia is also supporting the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program. The organization’s staff is trained to recognize the sunflower as a discreet sign that an individual has a hidden disability and may need additional support. Visit Visalia’s office will have free materials to visitors about hotels, attractions, gold courses and venues in town with special accommodations.
“This process has been extensive but we’ve just begun our journey and we continue our work, creating a destination that is ready to welcome the ASD community to Visalia, where they will find trained staff and a spectrum of possibilities to enjoy,” Freeborn said.
The certification is awarded by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which oversees training and certification in the field of cognitive disorders created by The Autism Society of America, the largest grassroots autism organization in the world. IBCCES president Meredith Tekin, who joined the press conference via Zoom from Florida, said the work done by Visit Visalia will have a huge impact on individuals with autism and their families.
“As humans we basically want to be treated with respect and this is about being as accommodating as possible,” Tekin said.
The number one destination for those visiting Visalia is the national parks. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park host more than 2 million visitors per year, most of them staying, eating and sleeping in and around Visalia on their travels to and from the parks. Park Superintendent Clay Jordan said Sequoia and Kings Canyon have made a concerted effort to include those with physical disabilities and recently published an accessibility guide. He said wheelchairs are offered free of charge at the Visitor Center, the National Park System provides a free access pass to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, and the parks have a great partnership with the city of Visalia for its Sequoia Shuttle. But there is always room for improvement, and after hearing of Visit Visalia’s designation, Jordan said he will spend more time gathering input on what would make the parks more accommodating for those with sensory disorders.
“We are fortunate to be able to follow the leadership of Visit Visalia,” Jordan said.
Freeborn says Visalia is an ideal city to become California’s first certified autism destination, a designation awarded to cities and areas where hotels, museums, attractions, and venues are trained and certified to better serve autistic individuals and others with sensory disorders. In addition to Visit Visalia’s designation, others businesses have already signed up to complete autism sensitivity training and awareness including Comfort Suite Visalia Hotel, Hampton Inn Visalia, Visalia Marriott at the Convention Center, Valley Oaks Golf Course, Visalia Wyndham, Lamp Liter Inn, Naturally Nuts and Visalia Adventure Park.
“Join us in making Visalia the first certified autism city in California,” said Robert Lee, owner of the Lamp Liter Inn.
The city is also working with Unlimited Play, Inc. to build an inclusive park, one built for the safe play of children with physical and mental disabilities. Parks all over the city already include some playground equipment for children with disabilities. Just down the street from Visit Visalia is ImagineU Children’s Museum, which offers a free form experience for children of all abilities. Mayor Steve Nelsen said the Visalia City Council is committed to being inclusive.
“We want everyone to know you’re welcome to a community that welcomes everybody,” Nelsen said.
Just up the road in Ivanhoe, Farmer Bob’s World offers an interactive and open farming experiencing to teach children where their fruit comes from.
“I like to say Visalia is a compact city with loads to do,” Freeborn said. “Our charming and historical downtown is less congested, easy to navigate and filled with unique restaurants.”
Even before the movement locally, Freeborn said her own family has seen awareness and understanding from local business owners. She said it could be as simple as their favorite restaurant, Chapala Grill, allowing her daughter to eat a bag of McDonald’s while the rest of the family enjoys the menu.
“As we go down this journey together, I am excited to hear the stories from families who otherwise might not travel,” Freeborn said. “I am excited to meet them, I’m excited that Visalia gets to be part of their story.”
Even without a certification, Freeborn said there are many things anyone can do to be more respectful of families with an autistic child. If you are aware there is an autistic child, offer to adjust lighting or sound for the family when possible. If an autistic child wants to talk with you, don’t shy away, but lower yourself and make eye contact with them so they feel more comfortable.
Ultimately, if you think someone needs help, politely ask if they need help. In many cases, introducing another person into the situation could be extremely helpful or somewhat detrimental.
“If someone opens the door, take the opportunity to listen to them,” Freeborn said. “The best thing you can do is always keep that person’s dignity in tact.”
For more information on inclusive and accessible travel to Visalia and nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, go to visitvisalia.com/accessible-travel.