Written by Jordan Houston for disabilityscoop.com
MESA, Ariz. — Mesa is officially the first Autism Certified City in the country with close to 4,000 stakeholders in health care, education, hospitality and government trained to better serve people with the sensory disorder.
The city was recently certified by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards and is now able to tap into a new source of visitor dollars to the region.
More than 32 million individuals with autism and their families travel each year, according to IBCCES data, while close to $262 billion is spent on autism-related services in the U.S. each year.
Mayor John Giles said the recognition not only raises the city’s profile for millions of individuals with autism but also speaks to the city’s character.
“Everyone is excited to see the progress we’ve made,” he said. “People from all over the country will now be coming to Mesa for their family vacations because they know they’re going to have an understanding host.”
“This is part of who we are — it’s no secret this is a very passionate community,” he said. “It helps us define our mission as a community.”
For almost 20 years, IBCCES has been spearheading autism training for licensed health care professionals and educators around the globe.
In order for an entire city to become certified, it must first certify at least 60 businesses, as well as schools and other city departments.
For a company or organization to become certified, 80 percent or more of its guest-facing staff must undergo position-specific training.
“It’s the entire community that got us this certification,” said the mayor. “But there are some important components within the community, like the hospitality industry is very connected to this.”
The nearly year-long effort behind the autism certification was launched by the city’s destination marketing organization Visit Mesa, which encouraged businesses to participate in the training in order to meet the needs of travelers with autism.
Visit Mesa championed the idea of servicing those living with autism as well as their families from the very beginning stages of planning a vacation, to when they arrive and throughout their stay.
“It is amazing to me how quickly it all came together,” said Visit Mesa CEO Marc Garcia. “This was a dream of ours to be more inclusive and to make Mesa more accommodating to people living with ASD.”
“It really speaks to Mesa as a community,” he continued. “Mesa has always been known as a family-friendly city with compassion and a heart — that’s why I think it happened so quickly.”
Garcia told the East Valley Tribune he was inspired to ignite the effort after his 6-year-old son was diagnosed with autism.
In April, IBCCES named Visit Mesa the country’s first-ever destination marketing organization designated as a Certified Autism Center.
The effort was immediately embraced by other city factions including the Mesa Chamber of Commerce and numerous nonprofit organizations.
“I knew there would be a role for the business community and I knew the chamber would step up,” said Mesa Chamber of Commerce President Sally Harrison.
Almost 60 businesses and organizations in Mesa and the surrounding area completed autism certification training — including Jake’s Unlimited, AZ Goat Yoga, i.d.e.a. Museum, Arizona Museum of Natural History, Mesa Arts Center, Main Street Bar and Grill and Escape Rooms Mesa.
Visit Mesa has big plans to promote local hospitality opportunities, Garcia said.
Participating businesses will be featured in a variety of planned Visit Mesa marketing opportunities, including an autism travel guide, a national awareness campaign highlighting new advertising themes to promote ASD travel and a dedicated online presence.
Now, the CEO is looking to turn his attention toward boosting employment opportunities for people with autism.