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How one group helps families with Autism cruise on Royal Caribbean

12 Jul 2022
Allie Hubers

Have you ever seen a group with matching bright orange t-shirts on your Royal Caribbean cruise? If so, you likely had volunteers and families from Autism on the Seas on your cruise. 

These volunteers help families with special needs children and adults have an incredible Royal Caribbean cruise by providing assistive services and care. 

Photo Credit: Autism on the Seas Facebook

Autism on the Seas is an organization that has a longstanding partnership with Royal Caribbean to operate regularly on cruise itineraries around the world. In fact, Autism on the Seas, founded in 2007, is a leading developmental disability service supplier to the cruise industry. 

The goal of this program is to provide the highest quality of assisted care to ensure families have a truly relaxing and rejuvenating vacation. 

Photo Credit: Autism on the Seas Facebook

Volunteers from Autism on the Seas make it possible for these families to have a vacation like no other by providing attentive, personalized care throughout their cruise.

While most cruisers have never heard of this awesome program, we are excited to share an insider perspective through one volunteer’s personal experience.

Meet Sydney: Volunteer on Autism on the Seas

As Royal Caribbean Blog fans, you might remember my cruising buddy, Sydney, from a recent Radiance of the Seas live blog to Alaska. Sydney and I were roommates on Semester of the Sea back in college, sailing 100 days to 4 continents while taking classes. 

When we sailed to Alaska, Sydney told me about her upcoming volunteer opportunity on Enchantment of the Seas. I couldn’t wait to share her experience with the program - even though I’ve cruised more than 30 times with Royal Caribbean, I had never heard of Autism on the Seas.

As you can imagine, volunteers for Autism on the Seas need to be highly qualified to provide the necessary and attentive care to those with special needs. Sydney first learned of the program back in college and was excited to apply, but she wasn’t accepted initially due to not having enough experience. 

The program encouraged her to apply again in the future, especially if she completed her master’s and had more experience in the special needs field. 

After Sydney graduated with her degree in Psychology & Childhood Studies, she completed her master’s degree in Special Education with an emphasis on Autism Spectrum Disorder from George Mason University. 

With more experience under her belt, Sydney reapplied to be a volunteer and was accepted. Once accepted, she applied to multiple itineraries and was offered a contract for a sailing on Enchantment of the Seas. 

This sailing was a 6-night Bermuda cruise with two overnights in Kings Wharf, Bermuda

Since Sydney was accepted into the program, she can now continue applying for future volunteer opportunities with the program.

How Autism on the Seas Helps All Special Needs Families

Just like we all need some vacation time, families who have special needs children also undeniably deserve to have an amazing cruise experience. Unfortunately for these families, it’s inherently more difficult to have a relaxing vacation when you have a child who requires special care. 

The program is not limited to autism, as any disability or special need is welcome to the program. There is no age limit, although most families have children or young adults. 

Photo Credit: Autism on the Seas Facebook

Autism on the Seas helps families by providing assistance on many cruise lines, but most commonly partners with Royal Caribbean. Families book their cruises through Autism on the Seas, which acts as a travel agency by organizing and planning everything for families.

Since this was Sydney’s first cruise with the program, she was assigned as a general volunteer to really get to know the program. Families are also able to request a one-on-one volunteer if they feel that would be more beneficial. While general volunteers float across families as needed, one-on-one volunteers are assigned to a single family and assist throughout the entire cruise. 

Volunteers offer respite sessions throughout the cruise, which allows parents to drop off their participants in a safe space. This gives parents and family members the opportunity to have some alone time.

The program provides assistance for three meals a day where volunteers are present to provide aid to families.

During sea days, two respite sessions are offered for around two hours each. Port days offer one respite session in addition to staff-supported shore excursions. The respite sessions are hosted in a safe space on the cruise ship; on Sydney’s specific cruise, this was in the conference center onboard.

Sydney’s Volunteer Preparation

In the months leading up to the cruise, Sydney was able to download the Autism on the Seas app to complete necessary training. The app had a checklist of tasks to complete as well. 

Transportation and accommodations before the cruise are not provided for volunteers, although volunteers get their cruise fare covered through the program. Because of this, Sydney applied exclusively for cruises that left from Baltimore since that is the closest port to her home in Virginia. 

Like any other Royal Caribbean cruiser, Sydney needed a negative Covid-19 test result before boarding. 

Read moreGuide to pre-cruise Covid test

The night before boarding, Sydney received an unexpected call that one of the other volunteers tested positive for her pre-departure test. That staff member was originally assigned to be a one-on-one volunteer with a specific family. 

Because she was unable to cruise now, Sydney was told by the program director that she would now be placed with the family and provide one-on-one care for the cruise.

On the day of embarkation, Autism on the Seas volunteers had a three-hour training to complete before meeting with the families. Those traveling with Autism on the Seas receive priority boarding as a perk and volunteers help families with luggage and embarkation. Families also receive priority disembarkation, which is staff assisted. 

Most families on this cruise had to reschedule multiple times due to the pandemic; therefore, this was a highly anticipated vacation by the five families cruising with Autism on the Seas this week. 

Cruising Support for Families 

Sydney said on the first night, before the first respite session, all of the volunteers decorated the conference center to be a welcoming, fun, and comfortable space for the kids. The program provides specific activities catering to each child’s needs and interests, making it a very personalized experience for each family. 

Kids are encouraged to spend respite sessions however they want. For example, if they want to be on their tablets during this time, that’s fine. Sydney said the volunteers are not there to teach anything, but rather provide care in a safe space. 

During evening respite sessions, the parents are able to attend the nightly entertainment in reserved seating while their children are under the volunteers’ care. The volunteers also help with activities throughout the cruise, like staff-assisted pool time.

Because Enchantment of the Seas is an older and smaller ship, the only ship activities in the schedule included rock climbing and trampoline jumping. 

Unfortunately, these were both under maintenance during Sydney’s cruise, so the volunteers had to get creative with assisted activities. Adventure Ocean staff even joined a few of the respite sessions to help the kids make slime and host a basketball tournament. 

While in Bermuda, the program offered a staff-assisted excursion to the beach. This allowed the parents and families to relax while volunteers spent time with the kids in and out of the water. Sydney said it warmed her heart seeing her assigned family having a truly relaxing beach day because she was providing care for their child. 

Before the cruise ended, the program hosted a Silent Hush Party with Royal Caribbean’s nightclub DJ. With headphones available for everyone, Sydney loved how this private event was available for the families. 

On the final night of the cruise, all of the individuals with Autism on the Seas received an award.  

Royal Caribbean Staff Elevate Experience

During her cruise, Sydney was blown away by the service provided from Royal Caribbean’s crew and staff. In fact, Sydney was so impressed with their attentive care that she wondered if crew members receive training on handling special needs children and certain situations onboard.

Most of the crew knew about the program and what it offers. Sydney said once the crew members spotted the program’s notorious orange t-shirts, many of them were excited to take care of the families and provide exceptional assistance. 

During dinner, Sydney said the waitstaff provided extremely personal service to the families as they learned more specifically about each family’s needs. 

Photo Credit: Autism on the Seas Facebook

For example, the waiters learned that Sydney’s family had a child who loved to play with straws - by the second night, the dinner table had plenty of straws for him to play with. Once the waiters knew the child hated condiments on his meals, Sydney said they were sure to respect this every night.

If one of the kids had a meltdown or made a mess, Sydney said the crew members would step in and provide assistance wherever they could. They offered additional support by going above and beyond. Sydney said their exceptional service made it easier to do her job as a volunteer. 

Photo Credit: Autism on the Seas Facebook

On the last night of her cruise, Sydney’s waiter was overcome with emotion and brought to tears when it was time to say goodbye. He was so grateful to meet everyone, especially learning more about the program and providing their dining service each night.

He even opened up about his niece in India that is diagnosed with Autism and could not wait to tell his sister about this program when connecting to WiFi again. 

Sydney mentioned that a common theme throughout the week was people coming up to her and opening up about a family member diagnosed with autism and how they would thrive with this program. She hopes more families learn about all the program has to offer.

Volunteer Arrangements and Daily Schedule

Autism on the Seas volunteers normally cruise in an inside cabin with one other volunteer, who could be either the same or opposite gender. 

Before the pandemic, the volunteers were normally assigned in a cabin with three other roommates. To reduce some of the risk, volunteers are only assigned one roommate currently. 

In Sydney’s experience, most volunteers with Autism on the Seas had cruised multiple times with the program, which shows how rewarding the experience can be for staffers.

Sydney was assigned a roommate of the same gender, who she described as very sweet and easy-going. All volunteers welcomed Sydney as a newcomer to the program and were eager to share their prior experiences. 

Volunteers typically work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with free time here and there. During the free time, volunteers can do whatever they want. As such, volunteers enjoyed the cruise ship most evenings by grabbing a drink at one of the lounges. Volunteers can also get off the ship at port during their free time.

Most nights, Sydney was tired from working all day, so she opted to rest when she was able. 

Her and her roommate also had a medical scare when they both started feeling rundown. Sydney brought a COVID home test onboard, which came back negative.

The program leader also requested that the medical staff test both her and her roommate the following day, which was promptly done by the ship doctor coming to their cabin, and confirming that neither had Covid. 

Because everyone is a volunteer, all of the staff members were passionate to provide attentive care to the families. Sydney said it was obvious that all staff members wanted to be there, which is a key part of making this program successful. 

Sydney’s Final Thoughts

With her love of travel and extensive experience with special needs children, Sydney was eager to volunteer with Autism on the Seas. 

She found her volunteer experience to be both eye-opening and extremely rewarding. Although the days were intensive, very long and a lot of work, Sydney said she’s grateful she had the opportunity to volunteer. 

With the bright orange t-shirts, it’s hard to miss the volunteers working during a cruise. Sydney hopes more Royal Caribbean cruisers know about the program in the future, as she was often approached with people asking questions and staring while she was caring for the child. 

Because these families are looking to have a normal cruise experience like everyone else, she’s hoping more people learn about the program and understand all it has to offer. 

By the end of the cruise, Sydney said the families told the volunteers they were angels on earth. They were over the moon with their cruise experience and so grateful for Autism on the Seas, saying they will never cruise without the program again.

Sydney said hearing this made the long days worth it, as she knew she was making a difference and helping each family member make lifelong memories.

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