Autism and tourism: Website tells visitors what to expect


A master’s thesis has grown into a website that shows people with autism what they can expect from their visit to Fort van Breendonk, the Olmense Zoo and a number of other attractions in Flanders

On the spectrum

Airports can be an overwhelming affair even for well-seasoned travellers. Last-minute gate changes, byzantine liquids rules and of course the constant, just-below-the-surface, fear that in some inexplicable Murphy’s Law kind of way, you will miss your plane.

Now, imagine going through all that as a person on the spectrum. “A lot of people who have autism and want to go on a holiday or an outing experience an enormous level of stress because of the unfamiliar, because of the unknown, because their routine is interrupted,” says Sien Depoortere, whose master’s thesis has led to a website to help deal with the issue.

According to the Vlaamse Vereniging Autisme (Flemish Autism Association), one in 150 people is born with the disorder in Flanders, with 42,000 people currently somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Many of those 42,000 locals tend to experience constant information overload because their brain processes information differently. Unexpected changes to their routines and habits can produce high levels of anxiety.

Tourism for Autism

The result, Depoortere says, is that people with autism simply tend to avoid going on trips because there are so many wild cards. The Toerisme voor Autisme website aims to help such tourists by making the unknown a little bit more known.

She has screened more than 20 tourist attractions in Flanders and broken down in minute detail what visitors can expect through three types of tools. They can all be downloaded from the website free of charge.

The photo-illustrated, step-by-step guide to the Stoomgroep park in Turnhout, for instance, describes what visitors will see when they visit the miniature railway in the city park: the colours of the different types of entry tickets (yellow or green-and-yellow), the number of windows in the little ticket booth (two) and the duration of a train ride (eight minutes).

They understand that someone in a wheelchair can’t get up a step, but it’s much more difficult to place yourself in the position of someone with autism

- Sien Depoortere

The rules sheet, meanwhile, outlines what visitors can and can’t do at De Stoomgroep in easily understandable language and with photos. No leaning out of the trains, no extending of your arms and no crossing the white line.

For some of the attractions, a sensory map can also be downloaded. The Antwerp Zoo map for instance details where visitors should brace themselves for strong smells (the indoor elephant quarter), those areas where there won’t be a lot of light (the reptile quarter) and those sections closed off by PVC strip curtains like the ones found in produce departments in supermarkets.

Toerisme voor Autisme, which grew out of Depoortere post-graduate research at the University of Leuven, is the first of its kind in Belgium. With the exception of the Huis van Alijn in Ghent, which bills itself as an autism-friendly museum, tourist attraction operators rarely think of autism when they consider accessibility.

Deeply misunderstood

The past few years have marked a slowly increasing awareness of accessibility issues in the Flemish tourism industry, both from private and public players, says Depoortere. “But these efforts have mostly been focused on wheelchair accessibility, and the blind and deaf,” she explains. “Autism hasn’t been getting any attention at all.”

She attributes this to ignorance about the disorder. “A lot of people still have this ‘Rain Man’ type view of autism,” she says, pointing out that it’s easier to grasp what adjustments are required to make a building accessible to people with visible disabilities. “They can understand that someone in a wheelchair can’t get up a step, but it’s much more complex and difficult to place yourself in the position of someone with autism. Often children with autism are still perceived as being difficult or troublesome – a child that hasn’t been raised well.”

The attractions mapped by Depoortere pay her a fee for the assessment and are automatically featured on the website, making Toerisme voor Autisme, which is somewhat geared to children and their parents, a consultancy of sorts. It explains why the attractions are mapped rather than graded on their accessibility.

Although the maps are currently only accessible in Dutch, Depoortere hopes to cross the language – and country – border soon. “We’ll start with a number of attractions in Wallonia, and then target neighbouring countries like the Netherlands and France.”

Photo: For children with autism, a simple train through a park can be an overwhelming experience if they don’t know what to expect
©Courtesy Toerisme voor Autisme