Mesa, Arizona, became the first autism-certified city in the United States in November 2019, rolling out the welcome mat for individuals on the autism spectrum after a nine-month effort led by Visit Mesa during which nearly 4,000 community members completed or committed to completing autism certification.
The effort was spearheaded by Marc Garcia, Visit Mesa’s CEO, whose son Mason was diagnosed with autism at fourteen months old, and followed a difficult family vacation in California. “He had meltdown after meltdown, and we got the stares from people, the muffled whispers,” Garcia told CrowdRiff. “The thing was, this wasn’t necessarily coming from other guests like us; it was from supposed hospitality professionals.”
Back home in Mesa, Garcia began considering ways his city could better support the autism community. Not just because it was a feel-good charity initiative, but because he had come to recognize the significant economic opportunity it could provide for his city.
“My wife, who is one of those autism moms that’s really channeled in, I learned from her just how tremendously loyal autism families are,” he said. “When they hear about a product or service that is autism-friendly they flock to it, and they keep coming back.”
Garcia presented the idea of engaging this community to his board, both as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other autism families and as a way for Mesa to make a name for itself in the hospitality industry.
“I wanted to do it the right way. I wanted the autism community to look at it and say ‘that’s the real deal,’ so we needed something more than a sticker in the window,” Garcia said. “I wanted a top-to-bottom educational platform where employees in our business had to learn what autism is, understand that it is a sensory disorder, and understand what the world looks like through the lens of someone who lives with autism, so you can deliver the best customer service possible.”
He discovered that the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards had an autism certification program for healthcare and educational institutions, and had begun credentialing the hospitality industry as well.
His board and staff took the training first and by March 2019, Visa Mesa had become the first Autism Certified destination marketing organization in the US. Then in April, they put out a call to the community to join the effort. The mayor was an early supporter, and that brought in the police and fire departments. Garcia received commitments from a handful of organizations, including a few major hoteliers, the Mesa Parks Department, and the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. By November, almost 60 businesses and organizations in Mesa and surrounding area completed training and also are now each deemed a Certified Autism Center.
“Visit Mesa is a national change agent in the travel industry. We’ve always been entrepreneurial and innovative in the ways we respond to the needs of our regional visitors. Autism trainings and certifications are the latest example,” Garcia said. “Our goal is to ensure individuals with autism and their families enjoy an ideal vacation in Mesa, Ariz. As a parent of a child diagnosed on the spectrum, not only is inclusivity the right thing to do, it makes business sense.”
In the future, Garcia said in 2019, the city will look for ways to expand into neuro-diversity hiring practices, and eventually into better housing and infrastructure practices as well. “We’re not just going to focus on autism; we have a commitment to total inclusivity, so we’ll be working and finding ways to work with other disabilities as well.”
Mesa was the first US city to adopt the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program in 2021, which allows visitors to self-identify as someone with a hidden disability by wearing a lanyard or bracelet with a sunflower. The city also has joined Wheel the World, which lists accessible hotels and attractions for wheelchair users, and Aira, an app with an on-demand visual interpreter that allows the visually impaired to navigate the city.
Mesa, AZ Becomes First-Ever Autism Certified City in U.S. International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, Nov. 18, 2019
How Mesa, Arizona Became the First Autism Certified City in the United States. CrowdRiff, Nov. 26, 2019