Traveling while Autistic in France

autistic man looks at the Glass Pyramid through a window at the LouvreAs the year comes to an end, the numbers are being confirmed. The Louvre Museum is set to break records with 10 million visitors in 2018. That’s more than any other museum in the world. France retains its crown as the most visited country and Paris continues to be the destination of choice for travellers worldwide. Contrary to a false rumor, Paris is still Paris, or as the French say “Paris is always Paris”

graph showing top 3 countries that travel to France with a handicap

Top 3 nationalities of visitors with disabilities to France. Percentage of non-disabled visitors in brackets. Graph courtesy of the Paris Region CRT

According to the Comité Régional du Tourisme (CRT) a public organization which partners with government agencies to promote the Paris region, the highest percentage of foreign visitors come from the U.S. followed by the U.K. When it comes to visitors with special needs however, the British lead Americans by 1 percent. France’s Belgian neighbors come in third. CRT recently presented the results of a study showing that disabled international tourists account for nearly 43 percent of visitors with a handicap to Paris.

The study, using data from 2017, grouped visitors according to categories of “besoin spécifique” or specific needs including seniors, pregnant women or those with strollers. The usual categories of physical, auditory, and visual impairment were cited, in that order, beginning with the most frequent type of disability. Autism was not mentioned at all! Judging just by the number of “views” on the Frog & TED site, I can safely say that autistics do travel to Paris. Google “autism tautistic travellers waiting in the airport check their mobile phone appsravel” to find numerous sites and articles dedicated to traveling while autistic. Some international airports now offer a sensory room and TSA training programs. Infiniteach  makes tourism and cultural venues autism-friendly with their apps and recently launched one for the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. I’d love to see that at aeroport Charles de Gaulle!

There was a view of Eiffel tower from windowcategory in the study for “mental et psychique” (5%) and sadly France tends to put people with autism in one or the other, meaning they consider that all autistics have cognitive impairment or mental illness, or both. While its true that there are people on the spectrum who may have any of the cited impairments, they also fall into the categories of pregnant women, seniors, family, couples, etc. I would have liked to ask for clarification on this point especially when they declared that the numbers show “where we need to work”. Did he mean that more effort should be made to increase the underrepresented? CRT would do well to look to their counterparts in the three leading countries to see how they have improved accessibility and inclusion of tourists on the spectrum. It would not be surprising if some day, with improved data collection and more sensory and autism inclusive venues, we’ll hear about an epidemic of autistic tourists.

handicap icons

french icons for “besoins spécifiques” -there is not one for autism

autistic visitor standing under sculpture at the Quai Branly MuseumAlso missing from the study is expat families navigating the French (education and health) system due to disability. They often travel to Paris to see family, a specialist, or attend a conference. Exchange students with a handicap were also overlooked. CRT reports on the economic impact of handicap and tourism. In my experience, there is nothing like an American student with Daddy’s credit card to boost the economy. Again, Frog & TED receives inquiries daily from university programs welcoming autistic exchange students as well as the students themselves in addition to families with autistic children. One reason for the oversight  might be that the percentage of french students on the autism spectrum benefiting from inclusive education in France is alarming low. It is only slightly better for other impairments. Sensory processing disorder awareness and the concept of neurodiversity are slowly making their way into French vocabulary thanks to French Canadians and bilingual autism advocates. MIUSA is an excellent source for information even autism advice Their goal is to empower people with disabilities to access international exchange opportunities, navigating any barriers along the way. Thanks to their resources, international programs are more accessible and inclusive for all.

Of course we enjoy the same things as everyone else

One of the more noteworthy aspects of the study listed the top 5 activities of tourists with a handicap. In other words, once we’ve negotiated the transportation barrier whether by plane, train, or car, what do we do when we get to Paris? The same things as everyone else, duh! In descending order: museums and monuments, Paris tours, shopping, parks and gardens, and theme parks with Disneyland Paris number one in this category. Museums have been emulating some of Disney’s practices such as indicating a wait time at the most popular expositions or allowing visitors with special needs priority access. Even the increasing “multi-sensory” experiences at some museums remind me of Disney park’s artificial scents intended to evoke a memory or otherwise enhance the experience. Those with hypersensitivities be forewarned. The leading category, museums and monuments, was further broken down by top sites visited. The Eiffel Tower was in first place proving that not only Paris is always Paris but Paris is For All ways.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 16.41.25If you are traveling to Paris (or have already) with someone on the spectrum or if you are autistic, I would love to have your comments below. Certainly, I don’t mean to discourage anyone from visiting Paris. Au contraire! The reason I created Frog & TED is to facilitate access to French culture and the arts through our own experience. Don’t be afraid to make your support needs known to the travel agencies and places you visit. In Paris travellers of all abilities may obtain the free Accessible Paris guide from the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. It is also available online. Click on the logo or visit my page GlobetrotTED

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