Shelton man aims to make cruise industry 'Autism Friendly'

A Shelton-based company that specializes in planning vacations for people with special needs has introduced the travel industry’s first “Autism Friendly” certification standard and training program for cruise lines.

Founded in 2006 by Mike Sobbell of Shelton, Autism on the Seas is a niche travel company that organizes and staffs cruise and land resort vacations for families and adult guests with special needs, including autism spectrum disorders, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other cognitive and intellectual developmental impairments.

Royal Caribbean receives certification

Royal Caribbean International is the first cruise line to receive certification from Autism on the Seas. Effective immediately, Royal Caribbean’s entire fleet is comprised of bronze level certified “Autism Friendly” ships. The fleet is expected to achieve silver level certification by the end of 2014.

“Autism Friendly” certification ensures that a cruise ship’s services, venues and amenities are accessible to guests with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Opening the door

“Offering cruise lines a standard that includes training for their staff to effectively accommodate the needs of the growing and under-served autism community marks a turning point in the travel and cruise industry,” Sobbell said.

“Royal Caribbean’s involvement and initiative to accommodate this community is to be commended, and will open the door towards filling the gap for special needs families seeking a vacation designed for their wide range of unique requirements,” he said.

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."

Staff training, dining and accommodations

Autism on the Seas’ cruise line Autism Friendly certification standard is designed as a guideline for cruise lines to ensure their pre-cruise and onboard services, venues and amenities are accessible for inclusion and participation by the autism and developmental disability community.

Depending on the certification level, ships may be required to conform to seven categories that cover cruise staff training, youth program, pre-vacation planning and services, dining and dietary, disability accommodations, guest satisfaction and feedback, and support for cruises with Autism on the Seas staff and guests on board.

There are four levels of certification, each progressing with increased levels of staff training — bronze, silver, gold and diamond.