For Shelton resident Michael Sobbell, it’s all about finding a niche — one that combines his talents and passions and provides a much-needed service.
He’s found one in Autism on the Seas, a company he founded that organizes cruises for children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Sobbell’s journey has been as multi-faceted as his company, which is a service-oriented travel agency that sets standards for “autism-friendly” cruise ships.
The company’s goal is to provide a vacation for families who normally face an all-consuming task of caring for children with severe disabilities.
Sobbell said he got into the business “by accident.”
“I took a liking to cruising,” he said. “We started cruising with our kids. Our kids love cruising.”
From engineering to travel business
Sobbell, who was raised in Stamford and has lived in Shelton for 20 years, has an engineering and design background and attended Norwalk State Technical College and the University of Bridgeport.
He started his career with Pfizer as a quality assurance manager, but eight years ago started a travel agency.
“Another passion was the Miami Dolphins,” he said, and he grew to respect former quarterback Dan Marino.
One of Marino’s children has autism, Sobbell said, and Marino established a foundation to raise awareness and funding to support services for people with autism and other developmental disabilities.
“I was thinking of niches that would have an impact,” Sobbell said. “I needed to bring something on board that cruise lines weren’t providing,”
An unmet need
And his heart was guiding him when he saw parents with their severely disabled children on vacation.
“I felt guilty, because I didn’t need to bear their burdens,” he said. “There wasn’t anything for vacations for people with autism.”
Soon, things began to fall into place. Donna Lorman, president of the Autism Society of Greater Orlando, contacted him and familiarized him with autism services.
That encounter led to Sobbell’s first cruise with services for people with developmental disabilities in July 2007 aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas.
Most families who went on the cruise were affiliated with the Autism Society.
Then Jamie Grover, who taught at the University of California’s development disabilities program, read one of Sobbell’s promotional pieces on the cruises and contacted him.
Sobbell hired Grover as a group leader in charge of staff members on the next cruise. Grover, in turn, brought along University of California staff members.
Now staffs 35 cruises a year
Today, Autism on the Seas employs five or six group leaders in charge of 200 staff members who are professionals in autism care and therapy. They include special education teachers, therapists and applied behavior analysis therapists.
“Our staff cruises with the families,” said Sobbell, and staff members are evaluated during their first cruise and after each subsequent cruise.
The company provides staffing for 35 cruises a year on major cruise lines that travel to the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Alaska, New England, Canada, and the Mexican Riviera.
(Story continues below)
“We’re at every meal to assist them.”
— Mike Sobbell
Autism on Seas Founder
Families book the cruises with the help of Autism on the Seas employee Amy Cayer, a Shelton resident who has worked at the Kennedy Center in Trumbull and has a daughter with “high functioning autism,” Sobbell said.
Another employee recruits and coordinates staff members, and from four to 40 families use Sobbell’s services on each cruise.
Those being helped
The cruises suit people with autistic family members whose “extreme” behaviors prohibit them from flying on airplanes or going out to eat at restaurants.
Autism, affecting one in 68 children in this country, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, impaired verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behavior.
Sobbell’s company also services children and adults with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other cognitive and intellectual developmental impairments.
Before embarking on a cruise, the families are greeted at the port by Autism on the Seas staff members who help them circumvent long lines of passengers and streamline the check-in process.
“We’re at every meal to assist them,” Sobbell said.
‘We give families a respite’
The age of developmentally impaired passengers ranges from infancy to the mid-50s. “We give families a respite,” he said.
The ratio of staff members to children is two to one, and children receive supervision at the swimming pool, during beach excursions and in private sessions for rock climbing, ice skating and surf simulation.
Sobbell’s own children, Samantha, a senior at Shelton High School, and Justin, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut, have learned valuable life lessons from the times they’ve spent on the cruises.
Justin is a psychology major and is working toward a master’s degree in autism studies. He’s also worked with a special education paraprofessional in the Ansonia public schools.
“Samantha has caught the bug as well,” said Sobbell, and she’s a “buddy” to a special needs child in a local track and field program.
Although Autism on the Seas employs people from all over the country, it’s essentially a home-based business. Sobbell’s mother answers the phones, and his wife, Karen, is the bookkeeper.
The company also has an advisory team made up of autism industry experts, special needs parents and staff, and attorneys.
Certification can be earned
Autism on the Seas has established a process whereby cruise lines that comply with services are certified as “autism friendly.”
There are bronze, silver, gold, and diamond levels of certification, and Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International have achieved silver certification.
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, executive vice president of operations for Royal Caribbean International, said the cruise line “is committed to catering to vacationers of all abilities. We have worked with Autism on the Seas for more than seven years to better provide accessible cruise vacation options for families with autism.”
Sobbell said Autism on the Seas is “working with other cruise lines to get them certified.”
The certification standard is designed as a guideline for cruise lines to ensure their services, venues and amenities are accessible for the autism and developmental disability community.
“With my background it was natural to create a standard,” Sobbell said. “I created a standard that applies to any cruise line.”
The certification process stemmed from a desire to provide special needs services on shipboard, even when Autism on the Seas staff members aren’t on a cruise.
Sobbell has started a foundation to provide financial assistance to families who can’t afford to take the cruises.
And a new Facebook page offers a platform for families to share their cruise experiences and connect with families who have gone on the cruises.
Autism on the Seas has not only provided vacations for families but has appeared to boost the confidence of the children and adults it serves.
“Going on a cruise opens doors for them,” said Sobbell, providing them with new activities and skills.
It’s the gratitude from the families that motivates him and witnessing the bonds created between staff members and families.
The changes are evident at the end of each cruise. “There are tears flowing on the last morning,” he said.
Learn more about Autism on the Seas by going to www.AutismontheSeas.com.