Cruising with Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities

NCL Epic

NCL Epic

Going on a cruise can be an ideal way to travel together as a family because parents and kids can spend quality time together – and apart. Thanks to children’s programs on cruise ships, kids can be somewhere safe doing fun activities targeted specifically to their age group, while the parents have their own fun, and then everybody can come back together for dinner or other family events. Families traveling with a child with developmental disabilities or autism may have concerns about their children’s needs being meet and having them participate in such programs, but they will find that the cruise lines want all passengers to participate and are willing to work with parents to make sure everybody has a great cruise.

Disability attorney Dale H. Boam notes that cruise ships are required to comply with various laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act if the ship docks in the United States. “Obviously, the easiest rules to think about are access rules,” he says with regard to regulations that relate to things like mobility impairments and wheelchairs. However, when it comes to developmental disabilities or autism, “the needs become very specific.”

To that end, parents should “be ready to fully disclose what their child’s concerns are,” says Richard Ambrose, Vice-President of Entertainment for Norwegian Cruise Lines. (To listen to radio interviews with both NCL and Mr. Boam, click here.) The cruise line and its staff are willing to meet your child’s needs, but they first have to know what they are.

Boam suggests that calling the cruise line’s access or disabilities desk prior to the cruise  “as a starting place for discussion.” Ambrose says that at NCL, when such a call is made, it starts a process where the access desk notifies the fleet youth supervisor at the main offices and the youth managers working on the ship. With parental input, “We can work and develop a program for that child so that they are included in all the activities.” Ambrose also advises that once a family arrives on the ship, the first thing parents should do is go to the youth program and meet the manager to “discuss their child’s needs and issues.”

What should be part of that discussion? What should parents bring up? Boam says, “The easiest thing to do is to think about what accommodations, what services, does your child need on their IEP (Individualized Education Program) in their school setting?” What the child needs help with at school, is often what they need assistance with in a cruise program, because the ship activities often “sort of mimic school programs.”

One accommodation to think about that wouldn’t come up in a school setting is having the child be placed in a younger group. For example, a 14-year-old with cognitive disabilities might not be safe in a teen program that allows lots of latitude in coming and going, and may therefore do better in a program for 11-12 year olds.

Keep in mind that the overriding goal for staff and parents is for the kids to have a great time. “We believe everybody should have a fantastic vacation,” Ambrose says. Or as Boam puts it, “It’s much better to have a great vacation than a great lawsuit.”

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