By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Do your kids have a vacation happy place — a place that makes them smile just to remember their last visit?

For Mika Kanofsky, 17, that place has long been Beaches Ocho Rios. It’s not the watersports, the ocean or that he can eat all he likes whenever he likes, it’s that the Pennsylvania teen — and his family — are embraced and accepted.

That’s rarely the case as Mika has autism. “It is awkward to have to explain to strangers about his behavior, especially because he looks completely normal,” explained his mom, Heather Arak. People don’t know how to process it … and when we travel, it is especially hard to explain.”

Autism Center at Beaches Ocho Rios
Autism Center at Beaches Ocho Rios

Arak’s company does work with Sandals, but that hasn’t influenced her extended family’s annual vacation choice. “Our experience here is very unique,” she said.

Beaches Resorts, there are two in Jamaica and one in Turks and Caicos, and part of Sandals, became the first resort company in the world to attain advanced certified autism center credentials from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.

Stacy Andersen, who oversees the children’s programs here, explains that all 30 of the staff at the Kids Camp and in the Sesame Street program have had the special training.

Julia, the autistic character on “Sesame Street,” is on hand, Andersen explains, to promote awareness. “We want kids and adults to be more accepting of differences,” she said. There is a meet and great with Julia (always accompanied by a fellow “Sesame Street” character) and her well-loved comfort bunny “Fluffster.”

Carnival Cruise Ship sailing into the Port of Miami at sunrise
Carnival Cruise Ship sailing into the Port of Miami at sunrise

There is also an art activity kids can do with Julia, painting anyway they like, even with their fingers. “Children on the autism spectrum aren’t in control,” Andersen said. “This allows them to explore and make art anyway they want without being judged.”

The 13th annual World Autism Awareness Day is April 2. Thousands of landmarks, buildings, homes and communities were expected to be lit light blue in recognition of people living with autism. Autism-friendly events and educational activities were scheduled to take place throughout April — designated World Autism Month — to increase understanding and acceptance, but these activities likely will be postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

Six Flags family photo
Six Flags family photo

One in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed and while autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, according to extensive research, vaccines are not the cause.

Travel is so difficult for these families that many simply stay home, said Sarah Marshal, founder of TravelAble Vacations, and an expert on planning travel for those with special challenges.

But many programs, like the one at Beaches, help provide a smoother experience and a helping hand from the ultra-accessible, once we can all travel again.

 — Morgan’s Wonderland family fun park in San Antonio, Texas, is near airports, theme parks and museums.

Morgans Wonderland and Inspiration Island
Morgans Wonderland and Inspiration Island

 — Pittsburgh International Airport has opened The Sensory Room to help travelers on the autism spectrum decompress from the stress of flying, complete with a realistic airline cabin experience and soundproof spaces.

 — Myrtle Beach has worked to make the entire destination autism-friendly with certified lodging properties,a Quiet Room in the Myrtle Beach Airport for families arriving after long journeys and the CAN card, which allows families with children on the spectrum no-questions-asked perks like preferential seating at restaurants and the ability to skip the line at some crowded attractions.

 — Six Flags Great Adventure recently announced that it will earn the Certified Autism Center™ (CAC) designation from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) at all 26 Six Flags Parks.

 — Carnival Cruise Line has become the first cruise operator to be certified “sensory inclusive” by KultureCity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to accessibility and inclusion. Sensory bags are available to check out and include noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys and a special VIP lanyard to help staff identify those participating in the program. (Visit the Guests with Disabilities page on

 — Autism on the Seas works with Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines to provide staff-assisted cruise vacations.

 — Museums are offering special hours like at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center that offers monthly Exploration for All events, either before the museum opens or after it closes, and guides like the Sensory Friendly Map at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

 — Walt Disney World’s Disability Access Service is designed for guests who are unable to tolerate extended waits at attractions due to a disability. Their Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities provides information on locations throughout the parks where kids who have become overstimulated can take a break.

Great Wolf Lodge
Great Wolf Lodge

 — Great Wolf Lodge Resorts, which hopes to reopen its resorts in early April, is sponsoring a fundraising Blue Wolf Ears campaign for Autism Speaks in April at its indoor water park resorts across the country. Get a set of blue ears for $5, with all net proceeds going to Autism Speaks.

Beaches integrates kids on the spectrum into the daily programs whenever possible. Only when the child needs one-on-one attention and care do families pay extra ($15 an hour).

As many as 100 kids on the spectrum come to Beaches Ocho Rios annually, and that number is growing. In just one week last June, 17 kids were visiting the 222-room hotel, which can accommodate 800 people, including 300 kids, when fully booked, according to General Manager Brian Roper.

The only downside: “Families aren’t always forthcoming,” said Roper, explaining that they are worried they won’t be accepted and will be judged.

They won’t be, promises Heather Arak. “And parents get a vacation, too.”