There are places across the country that are worth visiting for a variety of special reasons—and Mesa, Arizona, happens to have a very special reason. Recognized nationally as one of the most family-friendly communities in the country, Mesa is proud to be the very first autism certified city. In an effort to better accommodate travelers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the city of Mesa worked closely with local shops, hotels, restaurants, and attractions to help them become autism-certified places of business. This means that all stakeholders and employees have been trained and certified to better serve individuals with ASD and other cognitive disorders. All of the places featured on this road trip are autism certified, and aim to give a memorable, full-sensory experience to every single visitor.
Not only is OdySea Aquarium full of interactive experiences, it is also the first attraction in Arizona to become a Certified Autism Center. OdySea has 65 different aquatic animal exhibits to explore, including a live penguin viewing and stingray touch pool. OdySea has taken steps to be even more accommodating for those with sensory disabilities, including being Professional Agile Leadership (PAL) certified and featuring a video on their website that walks visitors through the aquarium so they know exactly what to expect when they arrive. There are also quiet rooms throughout the building in case anyone needs to step away from the noise and crowds, and the entire staff is trained to assist any guests with ASD.
Located in Tonto National Forest along the Lower Salt River, Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch is an authentic Western-style ranch where visitors can ride horses, explore the desert, and escape noisy city life. There is plenty of open space and quiet stillness, which make it a wonderful place to relax and really enjoy the outdoors. The ranch does offer a full suite of activities, including horseshoes, croquet, ping pong, kayaking, and tubing. And best of all, Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch recently earned the Certified Autism Center designation. Everyone who works at the ranch has completed special trainings and certifications to better understand how to assist and facilitate guests with ASD and their families.
If you’re looking to explore the desert, Usery Mountain Regional Park is an ideal place for some family-friendly exploration. There is plenty of outdoor space so it’s easy to find a quiet corner of nature—or to just run around and be loud! There are over 29 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There's also a Nature Center where kids and adults can learn about the many different plants and animals of the desert. Other great activities include ranger-lead hikes and movies among the cacti. If you’re looking for some hikes that the whole family can enjoy, be sure to check out Wind Cave and Merkle—both are short, flat, and great for beginners. The entire park is barrier free and specifically designed to be accessible for strollers and to those with disabilities.
Jarrod’s Coffee, Tea and Gallery in downtown Mesa is not your average coffee house. In addition to serving up some delightful drinks, it also features local art, vintage jewelry, and regularly hosts art shows, improv nights, and live music. Jarrod's is one of the few restaurants that has become a Certified Autism Center through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). Stop by for some coffee, an Italian soda, or one of their delicious bagel sandwiches.
If you are a baseball fan—more specifically, a Chicago Cubs fan—then definitely plan a visit to Sloan Park. Here you can watch the iconic Chicago Cubs play all of their spring training games (the season runs February through March). Part of the Cactus League Association, Sloan Park is one of ten local stadiums where you can watch professional baseball in a much smaller, more intimate stadium. Additionally, Sloan Park is another Certified Autism Center, with staff trained to accommodate individuals with ASD. The park offers plenty of family-friendly lawn seating along the outfield, which provides less noise and more space to spread out. And if hunger strikes, there are always hot dogs, pizzas, and popcorn to enjoy.
The Arizona Museum of Natural History is another fantastic museum that has become a Certified Autism Center. This particular museum offers plenty of exhibits for both dinosaur and history lovers, including historic Southwestern and South American civilizations, panning for gold, even giant dinosaur skeletons. Because some of the exhibits can be pretty dynamic, the museum offers resources to help accommodate anyone with sensory disabilities. Noise cancelling earphones and light sensitivity glasses are available for check out at the main desk. There is also a Certified Sensory Guide available online that gives a sensory evaluation and rating for each exhibit so you can avoid anything that might overstimulate. Additionally, there are quiet areas located on each floor and designated "Sensory Gentle Days" when the museum opens an hour early and all sound effects are turned off.
The i.d.e.a. Museum is an interactive, hands-on space that blends art, science, and engineering activities into one multi-sensory experience. It’s also become a Certified Autism Center and caters to guests with special needs. Like the Arizona Museum of Natural History, the i.d.e.a. Museum provides an online Certified Sensory Guide to help parents determine which exhibits may be too stimulating for their child. There are sensory backpacks available for check out at the Visitor Services desk, all of which come equipped with items and resources to help reduce noise. The entire museum is wheelchair accessible and there is a family/companion care restroom in the ArtVille exhibit.
It’s not only museums and attractions that have become Certified Autism Centers, local restaurants like Macayo's Mexican Food have gone through the program as well. This iconic Arizona restaurant chain serves traditional Mexican food in a welcoming atmosphere. They use farm-grown, local ingredients and their menu has been created from generations of family recipes. Part of the Kind Hospitality group, which operates several restaurant throughout Greater Phoenix, all Macayo’s employees have been through special training so they can better serve any guest with ASD. From the food to the staff, you really are treated like family here.
With its multiple pools and water activities, the Skyline Aquatic Center is a great way to beat the desert heat. The City of Mesa Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities partnered with the IBCCES to become the world’s first Parks & Recreation agency to be designated as a Certified Autism Center. For the Skyline Aquatic Center, this means the staff underwent specialized training to gain the knowledge and expertise to serve guests with ASD and their families. They have fidget toys, noise canceling headphones, and communication tools available by request at the main desk. Quiet rooms and low sensory areas are available if needed, and they encourage visitors to check out their zero-depth entry pool, which can be a gentler way of entering the water
From the warm weather to the wide variety of activities and places to enjoy, a trip to Mesa makes for an ideal getaway. Even if you don't know anyone with ASD, Mesa should still be on your travel bucket list. Any city that embraces true inclusivity and appreciates multiple perspectives is road trip worthy in our book.
Banner Photo Credit: Mark Baldwin
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