Autism-Friendly Austin

Violet sunsets, a wide variety of live music, a beatnik crew of Longhorn/political/musical/techie/spunky types, and the nation’s largest natural swimming pool in an urban area are sure to keep Texas’ capital all sorts of weird for a long time to come. But for all those working to keep Austin weird, there are just as many using their time, energy, and creativity to keep Austin friendly and accessible. Most notably– the management and staff at Thoughtful House and Austin’s Wyndham Garden Hotel.

In April 2010, Austin’s Wyndham opened nine “thoughtful rooms,” hotel rooms designed specifically for families that have children with developmental disorders like autism. According to guest services manager Casandra Kokoska, the rooms (six standard, two suites and one handicap-accessible double), “have made a huge difference for families that usually have to do so much extra planning to get to a destination.” All nine rooms are free of toxins and chemical cleaners, and are stocked with special snacks and games as well as safety features, like deadbolt locks placed high on the inside of the door and programmable alarms that alert parents when a door is being opened.

The idea for the rooms began as a conversation between friends. One of the sales managers at the Wyndham was good friends with a girl working at Austin’s Thoughtful House, a national organization of children’s centers that specialize in the medical care, education, and research of developmental disorders like autism and Asperger’s syndrome. As the friends chatted about work, the two organizations came together, “like peanut butter and jelly,” says Kokoska. “We looked at what it would require, asked ourselves if it was feasible, and we thought– yes, it is feasible. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done. I have people like this in my family and I had no clue it would take so little to make this happen.”

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Many of the Wyndham‘s hotel rooms are cleaned with green products, but when it comes to cleaning the thoughtful rooms, they make an extra effort to keep things toxin-free. Before each new set of guests the carpets are professionally shampooed, and the room is thoroughly cleaned using a chemical-free lotus sanitizing system. Even the minibar water is glass-bottled and organically filtered. The room is stocked with healthy snacks, Thoughtful House-approved soft toys, electrical outlet covers, and childproofed night-lights, cabinets and doors. “If there are needs above that,” adds Kokoska cheerfully, “we do our best to accommodate them.”

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Chefs at the Wyndham and nutritionists at the Thoughtful House have even worked together to come up with a room service kids menu for the many children with autism that have very specialized dietary needs. The dishes have the same affordable pricing as the regular menu, but feature ingredients that are gluten-free, casein-free and soy-protein-free. Each thoughtful room also has a refrigerator in case parents choose to bring their own groceries.

Thoughtful House professionals and hotel staff come together every few months for autism-aware “sensitivity training.” Meanwhile, the kids are prepared for the hotel as much as the hotel is prepared for them. When families make arrangements with Thoughtful House, they are sent a small storybook with pictures of what the hotel looks like, so that kids can see photos and become familiar with the rooms and lobby before they ever step inside the hotel. The book is particularly advantageous for international families with kids who will be experiencing an entirely new country; Patients have traveled from 52 countries and 48 states to seek the services of Austin’s Thoughtful House. 

Outside the hotel, the city of Austin and the surrounding area provide a great range of activities for families. The city is home to two different zoos, the Austin Nature and Science Center, the downtown Austin Children’s Museum, excellent swimming at Barton Springs, and opportunities abound to bike, hike, and, of course, listen to live music.

For children with specific physical and dietary needs, families can follow up grilled cheese at Austin’s oh-so-organic Eastside Cafe (vegan and gluten-free menus available) with a day trip to San Antonio’s Morgan’s Wonderland, “the world’s first ultra accessible family fun park designed specifically for children and adults with special needs.” At the park’s interactive Sensory Village, kids can sound their own symphony in the Fix-It Shop, or try their hand as a real Texan cowboy on one of the Saddle-Up Stable’s Equicizer Horses. Also at Morgan’s, fun attractions like a Pirate Island playground, water park, a 1930s-style train, outdoor musical instrument garden, adaptive swings, and a whimsical carousel are all wheelchair accessible.

From Austin to San-Antone it seems the Lone Star State is everything but lonely– with hotels, restaurants, attractions and sites to keep every family’s vacation inclusive, fun, and stress-free.

The Wyndham’s Thoughtful Rooms are open to any family making a trip to “Bat City.”

Those specifically on their way to the Thoughtful House are given an additional discount – $89 for a standard room and $129 for a suite.

Photos: Kokoska / Austin Wyndham Garden Hotel