Visalia, California — Autism Certified Destination

In downtown Visalia, California, next to the local post office, stands a lone sequoia tree, named The Legacy Tree. It is a very tall baby tree, if you will, planted nearly 100 years ago. Surrounding the tree, is a wide, extended, circular mulch and rock area, which indicates the projected growth of the circumference of the tree once it reaches maturity. Sequoia trees are considered the largest living trees on earth and can live to be 3,000 years old. They are known for their massive trunks which can reach 36 feet in diameter. As of 2015, the Legacy Tree in downtown Visalia had a diameter of 41 inches. It still has a ways to go before reaching maturity.

I found my visit to the city of Visalia, which has recently earned the title of the first “Autism Certified Destination” in California, and is also known as the “Gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks,” to be both encouraging and heart-warming, as well as cause for reflection.

On one hand, I met extraordinary individuals and teams, doing everything in their power to do better for the community, dedicating time, energy, and money, for trainings for themselves and their employees. Braving new territory (new to them) has expanded their understandings of inclusivity, and has even prompted critical reflection of who else has been included, and who has not. Ultimately, everyone I spoke to expressed the joy of connecting with autistic people and their families, but also in connecting with inclusive goals for their business and community. This desire to “do the right thing,” appears to be making a difference for community members, at least for those whose mindsets are being transformed. And it is Visalia’s hope that this Autism Certified Destination status will draw more families and individuals to experience the rich beauty and history of the city and its natural and cultural resources, without stressful attitudinal barriers and other access barriers that often prevent people from traveling.

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On the other hand, upon interviewing a diverse array of autistic individuals and families, there were mixed responses to the concept of autism certification, and even to the writing of this article by me, a non-autistic individual. Before getting to these considerations for reflection, let’s look at how this autism certification endeavor began and the growth that has been made.

When asked about the origins of this autism certification endeavor, Suzanne Bianco, Visit Visalia’s tourism marketing director, stated that an employee had mentioned to their board that travel options for families of children with autism were limited due to inflexibility and lack of compassion in many travel destinations. With that information, Visit Visalia’s board began to explore possibilities for eliminating barriers and creating a more inclusive and welcoming community for neurodivergent guests visiting Visalia. Their search led them to the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

According to their website, IBCCES provides trainings and certifications in autism and neurodiversity for a variety of industries including healthcare, education, workplace, public safety & community, and travel & entertainment. Of the 19 board members of IBCCES listed on their website, 2 of them identify as autistic self-advocates. Mesa, Arizona is the first Autism Certified City in the United States (not to be confused with an Autism Certified Destination). Marc Garcia, the president and CEO of Vist Mesa, Mesa’s destination marketing organization, is also on the board of directors of IBCCES. Under Garcia’s leadership, Mesa, Arizona aims to become the nation’s most accessible city. Visit Visalia received encouragement from Visit Mesa and IBCCES, and from there they devised a plan.

Over the past couple years, Visit Visalia has been reaching out to local businesses and incentivizing them to get training to make them “Certified Autism Centers,” also a certification category offered by IBCCES. Businesses had to commit to the initial financial investment, but then received reimbursement from Visit Visalia once certified. Now that 42% of Visalia’s key hotels, and 15 family-friendly attractions are Certified Autism Centers, under the criteria set by IBCCES, Visalia qualifies to be a Certified Autism Destination. At Visit Visalia’s office in downtown Visalia, guests can drop by for a free “sensory backpack” if traveling with someone who is autistic, and if noise canceling headphones are needed, they can be borrowed as well. Sensory backpacks are also available at each of the Certified Autism Centers.

Imagine U Children’s Museum, a 501c3, is one of the newly certified Certified Autism Centers. This colorful and agricultural themed haven for young children radiates a “come play” vibe. With an auto shop, cattle ranch, composting bins, treehouse, trains, and dairy cow, children play while being educated about local industries that connect to their lives. The museum has begun monthly sensory-friendly nights on Sunday, from 5:30-7:00 pm. Adaptations include dimmed lighting, music turned off, and quiet spaces, nooks, and tents set up. Stephanie Kinsey, marketing specialist at Imagine U, stated that the online certification course was fairly easy for their staff, and they realized that many of the considerations were things they were already doing. She said that in general, they have a pretty flexible and laid back culture, as is needed when working with young children. 

Visalia Adventure Park is a vibrant, 7-acre, family-friendly attraction that includes an arcade, miniature golf course, batting cages, water park, laser maze, laser tag, go carts, bumper boats, party rooms, and a restaurant as well. Upon entering the front door, the sounds of arcade games can be overwhelming. And outdoors, loud music and excited voices dominate the space. 

Roger Hurick, managing general partner, understands this and since earning the Certified Autism Center status, has been navigating ways they can make the environment welcoming for all. He had 30 staff complete the IBCCES training. At this time, he encourages people to call ahead if there is a need to use a side entrance to avoid the arcade. He also plans to offer an exclusive after-hours event that is completely sensory-friendly, and is looking at ways to get the word out to the public. Hurick aims to be inclusive, and admits that they’re “still learning.” In collaboration with Visalia Unified School District, Hurick employs young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He’s hoping to keep at least one of them on as an employee after graduation. He prides himself on being a community partner, and says it’s about treating others how you want to be treated.

Tulare County Museum of Farm Labor and Agriculture, a 501c3, is located in a peaceful, scenic park complete with wild geese and peacocks, and a river-like creekbed that runs near the many buildings of the museum. Several historical buildings are housed on the premises including a wagon barn, harness shop, jail house, log cabin, a caboose, and 2 school houses. According to their website, the newest addition to the museum is the History of Farm Labor and Agriculture Museum, “where each cultural group and their contributions to farm labor and agriculture” is featured. This large, modern building includes exhibits of the local history of agriculture and farm labor, as well as one of the state’s largest collections of Native American baskets. Amy King, the museum’s curator, shared that they have several adults with developmental disabilities who visit regularly, and when the opportunity to become certified presented itself, they did it because they want to make sure that they are welcoming to all people. As a result, they have fidget bags and ear protection available for visitors who need them. They also have a theater that when not in use, is offered as a quiet space. King indicated that she is also consulting with other museums to learn ways to make the museum more accessible in general.

Farmer Bob’s World at McKellar Family Farms, a 501C3, is an agricultural education space on a 100-year-old citrus farm. Tours of the farm connect people to where food comes from and the contribution of farms to our communities. As a result of their Certified Autism Center status, Bob McKellar, aka “Farmer Bob,” recently received a $10,000 check from AgWest Farm Credit, an agricultural lending cooperative, to build a quiet room on the grounds. Executive director, Deanna Saldana, explained that Farmer Bob’s World aims to be as inclusive as possible. Creating a sensory-friendly environment is just one of many ways that Farmer Bob’s World strives for optimal inclusivity. Saldana stated that many seniors visit the farm, as well as school groups and adults with developmental disabilities. Farmer Bob’s World is designed with ADA compliance in mind, even among their orchards. And their tour “wagon,” a massive, two-part cart pulled by a tractor, has a long ramp leading up to its boarding platform. On their website, it states that “becoming certified with IBCCES is the next step to accommodating all guests, including autistic individuals.”

Upon entering the doors of Arts Visalia Visual Arts Center, another 501c3, you will encounter a variety of art mediums and cultural representations, a helpful volunteer to greet you, as well as a framed certificate indicating the Certified Autism Center status. Michelle Goans, gallery director, and board member Alison Miniaci, shared that their interest in the certification is grounded in a desire for creating a safe and inclusive space for all, not only autistic individuals. They strive for accessibility and equity, as this is part of the center’s mission.

The certification process has prompted them to consider ways to expand access to others in the community. For example, Goans stated that they have dropped their art hanging level from the standard 60 inches down to 58 inches to make it more accessible to little people, wheelchair users, and children. They include closed captioning on their videos. And they offer virtual gallery tours. In terms of ADA compliance, they do have Braille on their restroom signs. In order to make the exhibit accessible to a blind visitor, they would provide a guided tour and describe the artwork and read the labels to the guest. This accommodation will be listed on the website. They have a ramp that leads to their art classroom where Arts Visalia offers art classes. They recently hired an American Sign Language interpreter as they have 2 deaf individuals who signed up for classes. Goans stated that the main takeaway they got from the certification experience is “to address the needs of the individual, not the diagnosis. Let the individual tell you what they need.”

Due to weather-related closures of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, I was unable to visit. However, their National Park Service website hosts a page about their accessibility features. The page menu includes links to information for deaf, blind, and mobility access, as well as their policy related to service animals. Most notably, they have a new accessibility film series to give disabled visitors previews of what they can expect when visiting the parks.

As a sibling advocate and inclusion advocate, I appreciate the time, energy, honest self-reflection, and active changes they are making to be more inclusive. Most of the individuals I met have no personal connection to autism, but are driven by a desire to empower others through access to a part of their world. They are clearly passionate about sharing that world with others, and are willing to learn how to do so.

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As an autism sibling growing up, my family never went on a vacation. Not once. In fact, the only place we went for fun was a drive-in movie theater (my siblings and I comfortably contained in the back of our old station wagon), or on afternoon drives to rural parts of our county (same station wagon), where my brother could run free and safe, and without risk of judgment or stares from others. (See my article entitled, “Almost Heaven” in AwareNow Magazine.) After visiting Visalia, I wondered if my parents would have considered a family vacation had there been an Autism Certified Destination. So I called and asked my 80-year-old father. Without hesitation, he said, “Well yeah, of course.” I asked him why. “Because people would be understanding.” He isn’t alone.

Jose and Francine Moreno of Fresno, California, recently took their family, including their 2 young autistic sons, on a road trip to Visalia for that exact same reason. They wanted a place where people would understand and accommodate their sons’ needs and welcome their family. They were not disappointed.

I asked several other parents and autistic individuals for their feedback as well. Responses were unique, raw, nuanced, informative, and thought-provoking.

Dianne Olayvar, mother of an autistic child said, “In short —YES!! I am now inclined to visit Visalia knowing this info! We love to travel but due to my son’s needs it can be scary and challenging. It is very nice to hear that a region is educating themselves to be better inclusive, flexible, and accommodating to the needs of autistic families. Our kids work so hard to be a part of this world and unfortunately, there are too many people who don’t take the time and energy to welcome them back. Autism families can be very busy – from meetings to doctor appointments to multiple therapies in a week – not to mention the time it takes to support our loved ones through whatever they need additional help with (communication, behavior, etc.)—that a vacation away from the comfort of our homes can feel daunting. We don’t want to go somewhere and have to deal with the looks and sighs of the public or have to explain our loved ones. I think the more a place is educated and can support us, the more we can relax, ‘vacation,’ and make memories with our families.”

Maria Nagy, mother of an autistic young man, responded, “Actually, it IS on my radar. We bought a camping van and I thought OKAY, that’s a good starting point! And, I truly would like to see my city of Coronado get on this! No excuses! Also, the autism certification for Sesame Place, or the Kulture City signage and supports at zoos, it’s creating awareness, conversations and planning that can reach across disabilities when executed, and may move into a constant planning mindset.”

Kavita Sreedhar, mother of an autistic individual, responded, “I would absolutely want to travel to Visalia because I know that my kiddo wouldn’t feel judged there. Unlike some of the popular destinations like Disney and Universal who do not take into account developmental disabilities and sensory triggers for autistic individuals, and provide lip service or token support by providing a DAS (disability access service) return time pass which does nothing to improve their experience (5 rides in 7 hours in 90 degree heat and loud non-sensory-friendly spaces throughout made the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ the most traumatic one for my kiddo last year). So this comes as welcome news!”

Judy Mark, co-founder and president of Disability Voices United, and mother of an autistic man, said, “I’m always for communities and businesses being welcoming and getting training. But we need to dig a little deeper. Has the school district been providing educational services that are needed, particularly to the children of the thousands of farm workers that live there? Have local businesses and citizens been politically supportive of fully funding the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act). The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Republican, Kevin McCarthy, is from that area. Have the businesses given jobs to people with autism? This is where the rubber hits the road.”

Main Street Cloak
Main Street Cloak

Shubha Bala, disability justice activist and parent of an autistic preschooler responded, “As a parent to a kid who is autistic and it is a visible disability for them, I recently went to a town where a store had some autism sticker in their window. And I was really close to finally bringing my son into a store!  We’ve never done that before—in part because of the pandemic. But I thought maaaaaybe they won’t stare at us, judge us, or yell at us, if he does grab things and do other things that basically any toddler would do, but it can be especially hard for us.”

Bala continued, “Also, I wondered, will they have awareness around his AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication), his unique way of communicating multimodally, and will they have more patience and openness to different communication? For my son, how he is perceived can be compounded by racism—explicit or subconscious. So as he gets bigger and older, will people at least have an awareness of how him being autistic can impact what he says and how he moves?  I’m not saying it would suddenly get rid of racism but is it one more inching towards him being able to be safer?”

Bala also pointed out, “On the other hand, autism awareness means so many different things to so many different people. I have been wary about places that cater to autistic people. So often I’ve experienced people putting him into a box of ‘this is how autistic people are’. Not every autistic person responds to social stories and a sensory corner. At least my kid doesn’t. But I find that that is so often what it means. Or someone may think, I’ve gotten this training, so now I know how to interact with your son. What I actually want is a place that’s been trained in disability justice and how to not be ableist. This means approaching ALL people as individuals with unique needs and ways of being. Not putting my son into an autistic box and missing him for who he is.”

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Otto Lana, who identifies as ‘a scholar and a baller who just happens to be an autistic self-advocate’ responded, “I think it is great they want to be more inclusive as a city. But I am cynical and think it is a cheap marketing ploy and a money grab from the certification board. With the CDC stating 1 in 36 people are diagnosed with autism, I am afraid they view us as a huge demographic of often desperate people looking for their tribe.”

Lana, continued, “I am cynical because I personally find it offensive that museums claim they are sensory friendly which really means they open early on a random Saturday once a month to accommodate the needs of ‘whoever’. Separate is not equal. I am bitter and triggered by this distinction. I was forcibly removed from an AMC theater when I was young because I had trouble sitting in my seat while watching Toy Story 3. After contacting the management of AMC, they said they were within their rights to ask me to leave and not refund my ticket because they offer ‘monthly autism-friendly screenings of movies’. When we explained that the (other) theater was not accessible and not near my home, my comments were disregarded. Also ‘autism friendly’ can often mean childlike or infantile. I have my hair cut by a guy with face tattoos, not a kids cut type of place. A real manly barber shop with hot rod magazines and beer in the fridge next to a strip club. The barber is the most patient and kind man you will ever meet. He does not have video games or Disney films playing on big screens. He does however have great skill and an attitude for inclusion.”

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“I have never been to Visalia but did look up the city based on this new distinction. I have to say I was slightly horrified by the idea of the lanyard/bracelet with the yellow sunflower labeling (Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program). Shouldn’t the locals just help anyone and everyone with kindness and good customer service? I think a certification for Universal Design would be so much better, a certification that a city goes above and beyond handicapped bathrooms and curb cuts. Those are my thoughts, but again, I want to preface that I have not been to Visalia so this is without actually seeing this inclusive action in practice.” stated Lana.

Bella Santoyo, autistic self-advocate replied, “I wouldn’t be more likely to visit Visalia simply because, for me, traveling is easy. I do think many families may like knowing that they are visiting an ‘autism certified’ destination as it may give them peace of mind knowing that their child will be welcomed. I know several people for whom going away is hard such that they rarely travel. I do think disability awareness is important and I prefer that universal accommodations be made available to all who need it.”

Legacy Tree
Legacy Tree

Jillian Parramore, Disability Rights California board member and Autistic Self-Advocacy Network member, said, “First of all, ABILITY Magazine and Visit Visalia should have had someone on the autism spectrum visiting Visalia and writing this article, or you should have included your brother. Why were we overlooked? The city’s efforts seem to be more geared toward caregivers and parents than anyone on the spectrum who is looking for a vacation to go on.” Jillian also brought up other access needs sometimes related to autism such as economic feasibility, transportation, and dietary considerations. Jillian concluded, “I challenge people to do better.”

I think that’s one thing everyone can agree on. Doing better. There is as much diversity of opinions about autism awareness, autism certification, and what that means, as there is diversity in people’s personal experiences and individual needs. But Visalia’s citizens and businesses are wanting better. Families are wanting better. Individuals are wanting better. So how can we work together to determine what “better” looks like? What are the areas of growth we should focus on?

The Legacy Tree, that 100-year-old baby Sequoia next to the post office in downtown Visalia, beautiful, pure, and meaningful as it is, has a ways to go before its trunk fills up that prepared space surrounding it. It takes time to grow a mature sequoia, as well as a mature universally accessible community. Planting a seed is just the beginning.

I say, go visit that Legacy Tree, The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the museums, farms, fun parks, restaurants, and other attractions. Learn the history and culture. Get to know some extraordinary, inclusive, and growth-mindset people. And introduce yourself. Autistic or not.

by Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.
To learn why I did not bring my brother on this trip, read ABILITY Magazine‘s article on ‘Durable Accommodations

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