This Pioneering Tour Company Designs Trips for Neurodiverse Young Adults

It’s taken a while for the travel industry to recognize this need, but it’s finally catching on.

WanderRock tour group
Photo courtesy of WanderRock
Photo courtesy of WanderRock

Growing up with ADHD, Ted Kempf struggled in school. Smart, distractible, and chatty, he found himself often at odds with teachers who needed to stick to their agenda. That experience later led him to work with neurodiverse teens and adults in a variety of settings, eventually co-founding a touring company that is a pioneer in the accessible travel world: WanderRock.

Kempf launched WanderRock with cofounder Danny Raede in late 2019. The crew planned to focus on creating tours full of hands-on curated experiences that allowed neurodiverse travelers in their 20s and early 30s to experience destinations in ways that worked best for them. It was clear to both men that they were developing something totally new to address an unmet need in the travel community. “I was like, ‘Well, this is good, because there will be no competition. It's bad because it's a completely undefined space,’” laughs Kempf. Four years later, WanderRock hosts trips year-round to Europe, Japan, Zimbabwe, and Morocco and maintains an active Discord community of neurospicy folks with a case of wanderlust.

Like most other business sectors, Raede says the travel industry has been slow to catch on to the needs of autistic and neurodiverse travelers. “Innovation and new experiences for the autism market move at a glacial speed, frankly because most of the work is being done by researchers in academia,” he says. “Thankfully, we've started to see a bit more activism and interest from those on the autism spectrum themselves.”

WanderRock
Photo courtesy of WanderRock

WanderRock may be pioneering the field of guided travel groups for neurodiverse adults, but some other sectors of the tourism industry are beginning to realize that accommodating all travelers extends beyond wheelchair ramps and Braille signage.

In Perry, New York, local community members began the process to create what is now the Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park. While fundraising for a new nature center at Letchworth in 2014, Loren Penman had the idea to create a nature trail designed to meet the needs of visitors with autism and other neurodiverse diagnoses. A neighbor told Penman that her grandson, who is autistic, struggled to enjoy settings like nature centers but loved to spend time exploring the forest at Letchworth each time he visited. She shared this experience with Susan Herrnstein, a local friend also fundraising for the nature center. Herrnstein’s own autistic grandchild also found the park calming and regulating, so the two began planning.

“We were missing an opportunity to provide a physically and emotionally safe place to enjoy deep nature for those on the spectrum,” says Penman. Working with Dr. Temple Grandin at Colorado State University, they fundraised and planned for years until the trail finally opened in 2021. They’ve had visitors from 30 states and 20 countries. While Penman says they expected mostly kids to enjoy the interactive trail, they’ve been surprised at the large number of adults who flock to Letchworth, too. She attributes part of their success to the clean slate they were given to work with. “We didn't try to retrofit an existing trail to make it accommodating. In fact, we like to say that while others are taking public places and making them accessible, we have created an accessible place and made it public. That has made all the difference.”

The Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park
The Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park

In Pittsburgh, the family of four museums named after wealthy benefactor Andrew Carnegie has also begun to accommodate the needs of neurodiverse adults. Like Letchworth, their efforts were first aimed at children, but they quickly realized a larger need existed. Sarah Grumet, Team and Program Development Coordinator for the Carnegie Science Center, says they had begun to explore hosting events for neurodiverse adults, but a request from a visitor sparked their creativity.

“In the fall of 2021, a museum visitor who works with autistic and disabled adults contacted me, asking if we had plans to run an adult sensory-friendly event during our Pompeii exhibition,” explains Grumet. As a result, the science center offered an adults-only night to view the exhibit, which attracted over 100 visitors. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

During the event, the museum created a more welcoming experience by adjusting lighting, coordinating quiet corners, and giving neurodiverse visitors a chance to explore popular exhibits without crowds or noisy children. They’ve continued to do this regularly since that first successful evening. As a popular tourist destination that attracts visitors from many states, Grumet hopes more tourism destinations will begin to consider adults, and not just kids, in their accessibility planning.

“It was very nice to be able to go to a show there and be able to be in the back and walk around or just sit on the floor and know that it would be acceptable there,” says one guest at the Carnegie Science Center’s first adult sensory-friendly event. “If there's space, I'm likely to do that regardless even if I know that it's less acceptable, but it's nice not having to be concerned over that.”

WanderRock in Tokyo
Photo courtesy of WanderRock

Clinical psychotherapist Crystal Britt, who co-hosts the Time to Lean podcast and is AuDHD herself, says this visitor’s statement is exactly why there is a need for tour companies like WanderRock. She’s been taking trips with a group of neurodiverse friends for years, though they’ve had to plan them themselves. “I travel with them because I know that the demands are going to be low, and I don't have to mask or present in any kind of way,” she says. Masking is the term that describes the effort neurodiverse individuals take to “fit into” a world designed for neurotypical folks. On a trip with like-minded friends, “There is no pressure to show up in any certain way as a neurodistinct person,” says Britt.

From a clinical perspective, Britt says travel is often difficult for neurodiverse people because it involves a lot of expectations. “When I travel with neurotypical people, I am even more exhausted than when I left, so I am going to need time to recover from that vacation,” she says. “When you are allowed to design it around your own needs, it can be really meaningful.”

WanderRock
Photo courtesy of WanderRock

Drawing on their own experiences and feedback from neurodiverse travelers, that’s just what Kempf and Raede have done. With a set menu of tours, WanderRock returns to places over and over because they’ve built relationships with local artisans and guides so they can offer guests an engaging and curated experience. WanderRock tours don’t do a lot of what most travelers consider sightseeing—on purpose.

“We don't go and look at the big objects and get back on the bus and drive to another big object to look at it,” says Kempf. “But we have friends in the places that we go. We go and do local crafts, and we have this experiential learning component that has to be part of it.” From weaving in Morocco to glassmaking in Italy and wood crafting in Japan, travelers are able to put their experience into an object that goes home with them. “When they look at it, their experience is actually distilled into the thing that they did. And it becomes much more visceral, much easier to recall those thoughts and feelings.”

When Katrina Cutrara first traveled with WanderRock to Walt Disney World, she says the careful attention to detail made the trip doable for her. “WanderRock had studied the patterns of the line lengths and times in advance and prepared for us to be able to do as much cool stuff as possible.”

WanderRock
Photo courtesy of WanderRock

Kempf and Raede, along with their team of trusted tour guides, have put careful thought into every aspect of each trip. Choosing simple and predictable accommodations means travelers have a safe place to recharge, for example. “The support is the curation,” says Kempf. WanderRock does six or seven trips per year to Japan—it’s their most popular tour. Kempf believes that’s because Japanese culture makes sense to neurodiverse adults. “There’s a sort of respectful distance in Japanese culture. Nobody is trying to be in your business.”

Because of that, 75% of their travelers are interested in that trip specifically, so they’ve prioritized creating the perfect Japanese itinerary. “We don't stay in the busiest part of Tokyo, for example. We stay in places where the lighting is better. Everything is more conducive to not unnecessarily taking up our travelers’ energy.” Rather than touring a crowded and loud samurai museum, they meet with a father and son of unbroken samurai lineage and learn through hands-on experiences. “We want our guests to spend as little energy existing as possible, so that they have the battery to experience other things that are more complicated and then meaningful.”

While on the very first WanderRock trip, Raede sent Kempf a photo of the tour group enjoying after-dinner drinks. “These people may have never sat around with this many people after dinner before. Dinner is often a functional thing, not an enjoyment,” he says. “But looking at that picture, I got goosebumps. I said to Dan, ‘It seems like this thing is doing what we thought it would do.’”

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Meg St-Esprit (she/her) is a freelance writer chasing down and covering the most interesting and quirky ideas about parenting, home design, education and travel. She lives with her husband, four kids and way too many pets in Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications includingThe New York Times,Washington Post,Romper,Fodor's, and more. Meg studied counseling and human development during her higher education journey, and applies that knowledge and expertise to her writing as well. When she's not writing, she's definitely camping.