Autism Friendly Glamping

Dannie Sheard runs Leafy Fields Glamping with her husband Andrew. Their autism friendly glampsite in Devon is now in its fourth season.

Child climbing fence in sunlight

Leafy Fields is an autism friendly glampsite comprising two safari lodges, a shepherds hut and bell tents. We are also the first glampsite to hold the National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Award. Our family is autistic and we started with what our family needs were then listened to our guests and widened our approach. We are not just suitable for autism; we hold a Purple Angel for dementia and are a great fit for people with Down’s Syndrome, ADHD and OCD. We have also been part of the disability confident employer scheme.

There are many aspects to autism and it is referred to as a spectrum because although autistic people may share many traits they are all very different. It is a developmental condition that affects how a person perceives the world and communicates with others. Being autistic can make the world feel very unpredictable and confusing leading to anxiety or over load. It can be very isolating for families.

According to research by the National Autistic Society (NAS), 79 per cent of autistic people, and 70 per cent of families, feel isolated and 50 per cent of people with autism and their families avoid going out on occasions because of concerns about how people will react to their autism. 28 per cent of autistic people have been asked to leave a public place because of behaviour associated with their autism.

You don’t have to have autism to stay with us but you could say it helps. Around 90 per cent of our guests have a connection to it. We are a very small family focused site and are passionate about autism. There are a lot of little things we do to help our guests, but the most important thing is that we understand that autism is different for every individual and we try to adapt and be open minded and non-judgmental for each of our guests.

We like to celebrate the positive side of autism rather than focusing on the difficulties. On 18 June it is Autistic Pride Day – a chance to celebrate being different and promote acceptance that peoples’ brains work differently and that this is not a bad thing. The term ‘neuro-diverse’ is a popular way to describe this.

Our whole site is set up with autism in mind. We also have a list of tried and tested places to eat and local attractions and activities where our guests will be welcome.

Child with daisy chain on her head

Our approach

Being prepared is very important for our guests so we provide simple picture stories to help show what our site is like before arrival, thinking about noise and smell is also important. We send a very comprehensive pre-arrival letter with images to help our guests understand what they need to bring as just popping to the shops after arrival is not an easy thing for our families. They need to have every step of their journey and arrival planned to reduce anxiety and make the transition to the site successfully.

The main thing that gives our guests relief is that we have high hedges, and locked gates, with guests given a key on arrival. Commonly, children with autism can silently and suddenly run from safety, feeling no need to stay close to a parent or carer like neurotypical children would. The lack of understanding of danger can mean they might talk to anyone at length about their favourite subject, whether they are interested or not, or don’t speak at all – this requires understanding and patience.

Often children with autism can be stronger than they realise so things need to be robust or easily replaceable. Continence can be an issue even with much older children, so we have waterproof sheets on all beds and spare bedding available.

People with autism often struggle with how they experience sensory input – being over or under sensitive, i.e. they might not react to being hit but cry if gently brushed as they feel the input differently. They might not be able to wear some clothes as the find them painful (more than just scratchy) so we try to have a low arousal environment to keep inputs mild and help people remain calm. We were recently asked to remove patterns which was a difficult request but something we were happy to look in to.

We have individual toilets for all our units and bell tents have locked toilets providing a safe space to leave medication or anything that needs to be kept safe. This also gives privacy for those with washing and continence issues. We have large showers, so people can be assisted with washing. Showering can be difficult (water on the head is a difficult sensory experience) so we have colour change lights in our shower heads.

We don’t leave knives out in a block in the kitchens, they are tucked away and all have sheathes, also matches and lighters are kept track of. We have robust plates and plastic is also available. Blankets are chosen for their textures and are washable. We have electric heaters that don’t get hot on top to avoid burns.

Quiet calming areas are often needed to provide space and time to adjust to changing situations and we have created a sensory play room in our stable block with lights, textures and other calming sensory experiences. We planted lots of trees on our site when we first set up with sensory experience in mind – the sound of the leaves, colour of the bark and textures, plus smells. We had difficulty getting planning permission for play equipment but focused on swings as this is a popular sensory experience.

We have a sensory trail around our garden and play area and mini horses for grooming, which is very therapeutic for our guests. We also have cats and guinea pigs on site. We are in the process of building a garden designed for us by Alan Gardner (the autistic gardener); a sensory experience garden based around the way our guests use the space.

Two children sat in the grass

Making it all worthwhile

Being autism friendly does not help us with tourism awards, our locked gates are not ‘welcoming’ for a start and hidden disabilities such as autism are not part of the disability categories for tourism ratings or awards. It made it harder to get planning permission for our site and it may well put off guests that are not experienced with autism. We are not a charity, our holidays are not subsidised and we have received no grants or funding in the setup or running of our site.

We do offer whole site bookings for hen parties and other celebrations which does help to keep these two sides of our business separate. We know that our site has enabled a lot of families to enjoy a holiday as a whole where they may not have felt confident enough to try it without us and that makes all the struggles worthwhile. Here are some of our achievements:

  • Handing a child a guinea pig and hearing them speak to a non-family member for the first time all week. And not just a few words but a stream of conversation about their hopes and dreams for the future
  • To mention, just as a standard thing at the end of taking a booking, to a parent that they can download a ‘Social Story’ from our website and hear the tears of relief in their voice as they thank you for understanding without having to explain
  • To be told that two girls who stayed and enjoyed our showers, and who had never washed independently before, learnt this skill staying on our site and are now still washing independently at home (transferring skills learnt in one environment to another can be hard). This is akin to a neurotypical child learning to ride a bike – it is a moment most families would not necessarily notice or remember but any life skills learnt on the way to independence are often hard won and celebrated with us
  • Allowing autistic children space from parents and carers in a safe environment where they can play with children like them who won’t take advantage or bully. With so many children being ‘off-rolled’ from school worried about league tables, our holidays are often the first social interaction they may have had for some time outside of their families.

Autism Friendly logoBecoming autism friendly

If you would like to learn more about being autism friendly, the National Autistic Society and Visit England have released a booklet that might help called ‘Welcome Autistic People, A Guide for Tourism Venues’ and autism is mentioned in the ‘welcome all’ training available to the tourism industry.

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