Canada's First Autism-Friendly Hotel

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jun 15, 2017 1:08 PM

It may look just like any other hotel room: the bed is neatly made, the dressers are wiped down and pictures hang on the wall. But when you inspect it closely, you can notice the care and attention that went into designing and childproofing the space. The pictures are nailed to the wall, there are extra security locks on the door and the coffee maker is tucked in a dresser with its own safety lock.

On May 13, 2017, Hotel Port aux Basques officially opened two autism-friendly rooms. It’s a first for hotels in Canada, possibly even in the whole of North America. 

Three years ago Autism Involves Me (AIM) - an organization devoted to enhancing the lives of people with autism through education and resources - approached Hotel Port aux Basques owner Cathy Lomond about incorporating more autism-friendly features into the hotel. AIM put the funds together to make the necessary alterations happen, and renovations started last year.

Two guestrooms have been retrofitted so far, and Cathy hopes to alter most of the rooms on the ground floor in the next year. 

“It’s not major to do; it’s just taking the time to make sure it’s all done,” says Cathy.

The hotel has also opened a sensory room, converting a gym that previously wasn’t being used to its full potential. Along one side of the room is a mural painted by local artist Alex LeRiche; another side has a climbing wall for kids to burn off excess energy. There’s also a crow’s nest swing, a pea pod and a large crash pillow, as well as fidget toys. And the sensory room is equipped with lights that can be dimmed.

The sensory room is open to anyone, not just hotel guests. Cathy points out that Port aux Basques gets a lot of travellers because of the ferry, so people can bring their kids by to relax after a stressful trip.

Cathy’s sister has Down Syndrome, so she is sensitive to the obstacles faced by families travelling with children who have different requirements. 

“Just the extra special needs they have to be taken care of, and you want them to feel safe,” says Cathy. 

For instance, some autistic children have a tendency to wander off, so parents need that extra lock on the door so their child can’t leave unaccompanied.

For children with vocal issues, the kids’ menu in the hotel restaurant features pictures of meals the child can point to. As well, some parents might need access to the restaurant’s kitchen to cook special meals; the staff just needs a heads up. “So if we know that in advance, we can help,” says Cathy.

Cathy had a slideshow of the hotel’s layout put together for parents, who can use it to help familiarize their child with the new environment prior to arriving. 

“It’s really just making the parent feel that when they bring their child here, that they have knowledge of all of that,” Cathy says.

In a statement to Downhome, Tess Hemeon, Manager of Community Engagement for the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador (ASNL), praised the steps taken by the hotel’s management. “The world can seem confusing and very unpredictable for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” explains Tess, adding that misunderstandings on behalf of service providers can result in negative experiences for families coping with ASD. (In addition to the physical changes to Hotel Port aux Basques, Cathy had her staff trained in the needs of people with ASD.)

“Families visiting the Hotel Port aux Basques will have an extra sense of comfort knowing they will be greeted by a staff that understands their family’s needs,” Tess writes.

Cathy would like to see more hotels follow in their footsteps.

“I really think this is just an eye opener,” says Cathy. “We want all of our customers to be very happy and I want to know that people can travel and feel safe.” - By Elizabeth Whitten