Not long ago, the leaders at Visit Mesa didn’t know if a tourism bureau could become fully certified for visitors on the autism spectrum. Now, Visit Mesa is the first DMO to receive official designation as a “Certified Autism Center.”
And it has no intentions of stopping there. Before the CVB had earned its certification—which came after 100 hours of specialized training so that the organizations staff and board members—Visit Mesa had already started drafting others in their community to follow suit.
Today, the big-picture goal is for Mesa to become the first autism-certified tourist destination in the nation. By April, prompted by Visit Mesa’s enthusiastic promotion of the idea, 150 local businesses had expressed an interest in becoming certified.
At the time of this writing, 30 had either started the process or completed the training, which is administered by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. The response has been gratifying for leaders like Suzanne Keller, director of sports for Visit Mesa.
She feels the more committed their community partners become to the vision, the more welcoming their city will become to families that are often nervous about finding destinations that will understand their challenges.
“As we started to do a little bit more research, we realized that the certification was not only something that we could do, but something that is encouraged by the autism community,” Keller says. “It’s happening a lot more quickly than even we expected.”
One of the first community organizations to join Visit Mesa in becoming certified, and a key partner in Keller’s efforts to attract athletic events to the area, is the Mesa Parks and Recreation Department, which held training for its nearly 500 employees. The Mesa Chamber of Commerce was one of the first community groups to complete the training. Others also on board include local hotels and museums.
A Major Inclusion Initiative
From a sports tourism standpoint, Visit Mesa’s leadership in autism certification means that participants in the city’s typical sporting events can feel comfortable bringing family members who are on the autism spectrum.
Whereas in the past an athlete might have traveled with one parent and a sibling with autism would stay home with the rest of the family, Keller hopes that will change as the word gets out about Mesa’s autism friendliness.
“If we can help make it so the entire family can be here, not only to support the athlete but also to have a family vacation, that’s just really a win-win for us,” she says.
Measures that will help people with autism and their loved ones enjoy Mesa more include accessibility and guides for certain events, adaptive playgrounds and museum exhibits, quiet rooms in hotels and an overall awareness, arising from the IBCCES training, that will allow employees in the hospitality industry to understand the potential challenges—and solutions—for people with autism who are away from home.
As officials look toward a citywide launch of Mesa’s ongoing autism certification in the fall, Keller and her colleagues are also expanding their recruiting efforts to attract more adaptive sports events. The goal is for autistic athletes, not just relatives of typical athletes, to discover that Mesa is an optimal place to come for sports competition in the growing area of adaptive athletics.
“This is the kid of destination we are, where we’re constantly thinking ahead to see where we can be more inclusive, constantly trying to open our arms a little bit wider,” Keller says.