(USA TODAY) -- For an autistic child, a cruise can be a minefield.
Everything about the experience, from waiting to board to crowded spaces to loud noises, can be frightening.
Royal Caribbean moved to address those issues when it became the first line to be certified as "autism-friendly," USA TODAY learned in an exclusive story.
The new designation, awarded by the travel organization Autism on the Seas, indicates the line will take specific measures to help its guests with autistic family members enjoy their cruise.
The award marks "a turning point in the travel and cruise industry," says Mike Sobbell, founder and president of Autism on the Seas. "This shows a cruise line is actually committed to and will provide services and an expectation will be there. Our working relationship with Royal Caribbean has been top of the line, bar none."
Other cruise companies have also worked with Autism on the Seas, which provides staff experienced and educated in caring for special needs individuals. The company participates in about 30 sailings per year, the bulk on Royal Caribbean, along with some on Princess, Disney, Celebrity and Carnival ships. Group cruises typically have about a dozen families with an autistic child, and the organization provides a staff member for every three people with autism.
For example, Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas will offer an Autism on the Seas "Cruise with Staff" trip leaving New Orleans on March 8. For other cruises, see AutismOnTheSeas.com.
Yet the entire Royal Caribbean line now has Bronze Level certification, which means it will provide sensory-related toys, autism-friendly modification to youth activities (where appropriate), autism-friendly movies, priority boarding and dietary offerings (including gluten-free and dairy-free).
Ron Pettit, Royal Caribbean's manager of ADA & Access Compliance, says the cruise line will work with individual guests to make sure each trip is successful. "Each and every person with autism is a little different. It's not a cookie cutter accommodation process."
One tool is a personalized story book folder called a social story that will help explain to autistic children what to expect on a cruise. It covers everything from finding the stateroom to the muster drill, which can be crowded and chaotic. This can help children adapt to the unfamiliar surroundings of a cruise.
Another addition will be autism-friendly movies, which will be offered on any trip with at least five autistic passengers. These films, based on accommodations offered by some land-based theaters, will feature family-friendly films. The lights will not be completely turned off, the sound will be lower and it will be acceptable for guests to talk or walk around during the films.
The cruise line beta-tested the films last August on Oasis of the Seas and it was well accepted, Pettit said.
The line plans to reach silver level certification for each of its ships by the end of the year, which will ensure that all youth staff have received basic awareness training in autism and other developmental disabilities. There are also higher-standard gold and platinum levels.
The certification standards examine several areas, including staff training, youth programs, pre-vacation planning and services, dining and dietary, disability accommodations, guest satisfaction and feedback, and willingness to work with Autism at Sea staff.
Founded in 2006, Autism on the Seas organizes and staffs cruise and land resort
vacations for families and adult guests with special needs, including autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other cognitive and intellectual developmental impairments.
The group says these trips not only offer parents and caregivers a sense of normalcy through accommodated group activities, but such trips help families recharge and reconnect with other family members that often take a backseat to a child with special needs.
COMPLETE COVERAGE | The fight for autism insurance in Ga.
RELATED | More travel stories