I’ve put off writing this post because I am NOT an expert on autism. I am the parent of two children who have been diagnosed with autism, but I have no formal training regarding the disorder. However, I do know a lot about Disneyland, and I would like to share our family’s experiences at this delightful place.
I should mention at the very start that I never thought that I would one day need to say to my four year old “It’s alright Honey; you don’t have to go to Disneyland today you can stay in the hotel.” But on our last trip, I had to do exactly that. Disneyland is an overwhelming place, and if they just need a break, let them have it. As parents of autistic children we have to walk a fine line between giving them a little push because we know they’ll enjoy a certain new experience, and letting them have the order and peace that they crave. Our son, Ian, was four on our last trip and had been to Disneyland Resort twice before, once at 7 months (he rode everything and loved it) and again at 2 years (certain rides became stressful), this last trip was very stressful for him, and he got to the point where he couldn’t enter buildings or even open air areas that had a patio covering. It’s very easy to look back and wish to have changed things. But every trip is so different (age difference alone) that it’s impossible to know ahead of time where all the trouble spots will be. My goal is to talk about things that have helped our family and others and that might make your autistic child’s visit to Disneyland Resort less stressful and more fun.
Many of the basic things that will be helpful are covered in the body of this blog, but I’m going to mention here some things that are very specific to my autistic children. Please keep in mind that all autistic children are as different from each other as any non-autistic child is different from another, and you may be surprised at what your autistic child is stressed or comforted by in the unfamiliar world of Disneyland Resort.
To illustrate this point, I’d like to use an example. Our oldest son, Ian, is fairly independent and likes to walk beside the grocery cart at the store. He’s not much of a stroller person either. In a conversation with another parent of autistic children, she mentioned that her autistic children were very comforted by staying in their strollers. The stroller became a “safe place” for them and they were able to feel comforted in that space. I did not think that bit of advice would be very helpful to us. It turns out I was wrong. After the second day in the parks, Ian would only leave the stroller reluctantly. The fourth day he toured the park from the stroller while his Dad pushed him around, and would not leave its security.
Because I had spoken to this other mother previously, I recognized the signs of stroller dependency early and first thing on the second day we stopped by “City Hall” and got a guest assistance pass that specified that Ian and his party (see “City Hall”) could wait in line in a less crowded area (which translated to waiting in the handicapped entrances), and that he could stay in the stroller like it was a wheel chair. Those are two different stamps that can be placed on the guest assistance pass; handicapped entrance and stroller as a wheel chair. One thing I haven’t covered in the “City Hall section of the blog is that the cast member at the guest services desk will need to see the person receiving the guest assistance pass. My husband waited with the kids outside by the handicapped ramp while I waited in line, so that I could just stick my head out the exit door and they were able to enter without having to wait in the crowed main line. The cast member visited with Ian a little, asking his name and age, which she only received partial answers to, but it was enough for them. You also need to make sure that you tell the cast member the number of people in your party (up to six) and the length of your stay, so that you only need to get the one pass, and you don’t have to return the next morning. If you receive your pass in Disneyland Park, it can be used in California Adventure Park as well and vice versa.
In the “hind-sight-is-20/20” category, I wouldn’t have taken Ian on any of the indoor/dark rides. I would’ve stuck to all the outdoor stuff, which he was doing quite well with at first. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride followed by Alice in Wonderland (both dark rides) did us in though. Up until then Ian was doing well riding the rides. He happily rode on the Astro Orbiter, Dumbo, the Teacups and King Arthur’s Carousel. I was even able to take him and little brother by myself on a couple of rides, something I wouldn’t have tried later in the week.
We also learned that his noise dampening headphones were a comfort item that, as time went on, he wore more and more often. By the last couple of days he was wearing them almost constantly. There is a lot of background noise in the resort that most of us can just tune out, but autistic people with a hearing sensitivity can be very overwhelmed by all of it. I worked hard to introduce many of the sounds of the park to Ian ahead of time. I used “The Audio History of Disneyland”, a Disneyland sing along DVD, and the Vacation Planning DVD to introduce him to the sights and sounds we would encounter. I’m not sure if it helped or not, but I believe in helping things look and sound familiar to him as much as I can.
As the week progressed, Ian became more and more distressed when entering the park through the front gates especially at the rush of opening. I think next time we may try using the Monorail stop that is in Downtown Disney to enter the park. You use your park pass to enter the Monorail depot just as you would going through the front gates, but it is much less dramatic with fewer people. The Monorail will then drop you off in Tomorrowland. I don’t believe that the Monorail is running for a Magic Morning entry, but those are quieter times and if your autistic child hasn’t learned to distrust the front entrance it may be an easier process.
Ian loves Mickey, but entering Mickey’s house was just too stressful. The Grandparents went through the house and stood in line to wait our turn, then when they got up to the head of the line they explained the situation to the cast member who assigned groups to the various photograph booths. We were assigned our own session with Mickey and they allowed Ian to enter through the exit which, while still stressful, made it possible for him to meet and interact with Mickey, which was a highlight of the trip for him.
One thing we did do right was be flexible. At one point we were going to leave the park to go have a meal with family, but as we were standing in the town square area Ian looked around at the relatively sparse number of people and said “Let’s go back to Disneyland!” All of us astonished adults looked at each other and said “Okay!” and back in we went.
For our next trip we are planning our days a little differently. The plan is to attend Disneyland for a couple of days, and then take a day off. We’ll probably go to the beach or hang out at the pool. There is also the possibility that Ian and Dad will go have a day off and Mom and Little Brother will go back to the park on their own. That has the benefit of giving the brothers a break from each other, which as they get older is becoming more of a need.
This next little bit falls into the category of secondhand stories. I have heard of both of these situations in Disneyland Park. The first is about a young man who was very uncomfortable with the disproportionate head to body ratio of cast members in full costume. Because this was a known issue the adults with this teen were able to have him turn away when they spotted full-bodied costumes coming in their direction. As long as he didn’t have to see the character he was able to keep his mental balance. The second situation was not handled as successfully as the first. This occurred on the Jungle Cruise with a large group of people in a confined situation. A woman with a severe mental disability became overwhelmed, likely with the physical closeness of unknown people and the unfamiliar noises, and had to be physically restrained by the other people on the boat. These were just other visitors to the park and were not trained in handling this sort of situation, but really they had no choice because she had become a danger to others on the boat by hitting and kicking, even at small children. This was reported on an online discussion board. The comments on the discussion board lamented the fact that the people with this poor woman did not know that they could request (probably through City Hall) the ability to ride the attraction alone. If your autistic person has violent reactions to sitting too close to strangers, you will want to discuss this with the cast members at City Hall. We don’t have this issue so I don’t know what kind of stamp would be on the guest assistance pass, but I’m pretty sure they won’t just tell you that you shouldn’t have come. They will try hard to work something out to suit whatever your situation is; you just need to fully explain.
Like I mentioned earlier, I am no expert on autism. I am just a Mom learning by experience, but hopefully my experiences will help you just as the experiences of other Mom’s have helped me. I’ve saved my best advice for last. Look at your child and pay attention to them. As soon as you start to see the signs of distress, find a way to help them feel safe. Have the strength of will to stop what you are in the middle of and see things through their eyes. You will do more than help your autistic child have a fun trip, they will learn to trust you more, and that is priceless.