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New vacation rental caters to visitors traveling with autism

WILLIAMS BAY – The first autism-friendly vacation rental in the Lake Geneva region gives children and adults with sensory issues a comfortable option when vacationing.

Kimberly Gunderson, the property manager, said her grandparents built the home at 32 S. Walworth Ave. in the 1990s, and the home has been in her family ever since.

Having a five-year-old son diagnosed with ADHD and sensory processing disorder, Gunderson said that when her family decided to turn the home into a vacation rental, she wanted to accommodate families or groups with special needs.

After the family outfitted the three-bedroom ranch-style home with numerous sensory-friendly amenities, the region’s first autistic-friendly Airbnb rental was born.

Gunderson’s father, Greg Gunderson, said the idea of an autism-friendly rental hit home for him, having a grandson with sensory issues. Gunderson said he sympathizes with other families managing similar situatioins.

“Those families find it hard sometimes to go on vacation,” he said, “because there are not a lot of hotels or other places they can stay without bringing a bunch of their own stuff.”

The new Williams Bay vacation rental property has even been certified as “sensory friendly” by an organization known as Sensory City, after Kimberly Gunderson completed a training session with the group.

Sensory City works with hotels, airports and other facilities to train staff on how to accommodate those with autism or other sensory processing issues.

Tanya Acosta, executive director of Sensory City, said the two-year-old organization has worked with a number of organizations to improve their sensory accommodations.

The group has recently been working with Khalahari Resorts and Conventions, based in Ohio, on the hotel and convention center’s goal of becoming the first sensory-friendly resort in the Midwest.

Acosta said that while the concept of providing amenities for those with sensory issues is still a new concept, she does expect the idea to become more commonplace over time.

“These sensory issues are real, and they’re starting to be recognized,” she said. “People are starting to make provisions for them and include this population.”

Inside the home in Williams Bay, visitors will find an interior painted in soft, calming tones without dramatic contrast or patterns. The home’s decor is minimal to prevent potential injury. And electrical outlets and furniture corners all are covered.

Kimberly Gunderson said when individuals experience a sensory overload, it is often expressed in what appears to be a temper tantrum, during which the individual could knock over items and harm themselves.

The home on Walworth Avenue also comes with portable sensory kits complete with noise-cancelling headphones, special toys, and a communication board for nonverbal individuals.

Additional features in the home include comforting weighted blankets, a sensory swing where individuals can relax, and motion sensors at doors in the building.

“We give parents peace of mind, knowing that if their child tries to leave the room or house, which is very common, the motion sensor will go off,” Gunderson said. “And they are able to get up and take care of the situation.”

The home rents for $413 a night.

Acosta said in addition to improving the hospitality industry, sensory-friendly amenities serve a population that is generally weary about travelling because of a lack of businesses offering those amenities.

Gunderson has experienced first-hand the problems of travelling with her son.

Because hotels generally do not offer amenities to accommodate his sensory needs, she will stay only at Airbnb locations. She does not feel that hotels would be able to properly accommodate her son’s needs.

Her son is especially sensitive to loud noises and can appear to be having a tantrum when experiencing a sensory overload. Although she generally packs headphones and other comfort objects, it can be difficult to calm him down while travelling.

“There have been so many times I wished an establishment would offer a sensory kit or something,” she said.

Two groups have already booked the Gunderson rental in Williams Bay during August, although it is unclear whether either has a family member with autism or other sensory processing difficulties.

The family has partnered with Lake Geneva magician Tristan Crist to provide special-needs guests and families with VIP treatment when visiting the area.

Greg Gunderson said he has been helping since spring with renovations to the property, and he hopes to make it a modern, clean and accommodating place for special needs visitors.

He added that he hopes more Airbnb locations and hotels begin to consider the benefits of becoming sensory friendly, as the concept becomes more well known.

“If we can be an inspiration for other Airbnbs to look into this and start doing the same thing, those special needs families are going to be the beneficiaries of all that,” he said. “If they can have more options, that’s great.”

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