Surfside, South Carolina is becoming the first official autism-friendly destination, where locals hope families affected by ASD will visit to enjoy a relaxing, judgment-free vacation.

By Jamie Pacton
January 20, 2016
Happy kids at the beach
Credit: Happy kids at the beach

Finding an autism-friendly vacation destination has long been a goal of mine. I love the ocean, as does my husband and our two sons (one who's non-speaking and autistic). But our vacations are often stress-filled, as my autistic son struggles to cope with sensory overload and new routines. While trying to help him, my husband and I also feel the pressure of keeping our kids quiet while staying in a crowded hotel and navigating everyday challenges like going out to breakfast. After our most recent (rather disastrous) overnight trip to the beach, I desperately wanted to build a sensory-friendly resort where families with kids of all abilities could relax, feel supported and accepted, enjoy the beach together, and have a good time.

I still would love to build a place like that, but until I do, I'm thrilled to announce that Surfside Beach, a small family-friendly town in South Carolina, has just signed a resolution to make it the first official autism-friendly destination in the United States. Becky Large, founder of the Champion Autism Network and mother to an autistic child, was instrumental in making the resolution a reality.

"We're trying to create a judgment-free zone, and not just for a few hours but for a couple of days," Large said.

What this means in practical terms is still getting worked out, but according to the Surfside Town Council's Resolution, local businesses will work together to host "events specifically designed for individuals with autism." Large is also doing things like talking to property management companies to make sure they understand how to best accommodate families and support them. She hopes families who might have felt judged previously while on vacation will be able to connect with other families in positive ways.

"It's really fun to go somewhere, where everybody gets it and understands," says Large. "And you could actually swap stories with other families and talk about what's working for you and if they're from different states, we can cross populate and learn from each other...and help to grow awareness and who knows...create better services and supports."

The thought of connecting with other families sounds great to me, and I also love the idea of my autistic son getting to play with other autistic children while on vacation. Too often I think my son feels left out or is frustrated by his difference. Having a place where he could feel accepted and enjoy the company of autistic peers—whether they're stimming by the pool, digging on the beach together, or laughing and snacking at sunset— would be a wonderful way for him to have a happy, memorable vacation.

So, I salute the town of Surfside for its vision, and I hope my family gets to enjoy its hospitality someday. In the meantime, however, let's spread the word about Surfside's plan, and perhaps even more towns will find ways to become autism-friendly vacation spots.

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at and Twitter @jamiepacton.