This article is written by my friend Cindy who is a mother to 4 boys, one is autistic. This is her story on taking an autistic child to Disney World:
First I would like to give you a little bit of background about me and my family. I am a mom of 4 boys who love to travel and do tons of fun stuff with my boys. We frequent amusement parks, zoos, water parks, just about everywhere. When my second youngest (he was the youngest at the time) was 5 he was diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. This for a brief moment sent my world into a tailspin. How can we live with this? And I finally decided that you just do. You live with it, trying to make your child’s life and yours the best possible. No different from what or how I treat my other children. The year that Noah got diagnosed we had been planning our very first trip to California. How on earth were we going to do this I wondered? A four and a half hour flight? Hours in the parks? So that is when I decided to become a pro at planning vacations for my son. Hide him, and never do anything with him? NO way!! If you have a problem with his condition or his jumping up and down flapping his arms bothers you get over it. I have to live with it everyday and if I can do it everyday, you can handle it for a couple of uncomfortable moments. If you can’t you can walk away, we have every right to be here. Now a little disclaimer, I am no expert, every person with autism is different. I am just giving some ideas on things I have picked up in our travels to Disney and other places. Hoping that maybe it will give some ideas to help you on your trip.
First of all, as with any vacation PLAN, PLAN, PLAN!!! Many children with autism like to have a schedule and do not adjust well to change. This is true with my son. Soon as we start even thinking about going anywhere, I write and ask for any info they have to give me. I order the free Disney DVDs, this past visit I ordered the personalized maps of WDW. I got a couple of books about Disney with pictures and descriptions. Now this last trip was his 2nd trip to WDW (he has also been to Disneyland) so the experience was not really new to him. But if going for the first time, it can be overwhelming, for just about anyone, but especially for those on the autism spectrum. Introducing our trips to our son is the best way to prepare him. We look at the books and he picks out rides and places he would like to eat. When we went to California on that first trip after he was diagnosed, I wrote to Sea World and they sent a whole packet about the park. Posters and cards about the animals, just tons of information. It was really cool. I bet if you look online you can find a social story about going on vacation. These seem to help our son be introduced to different situations. They have them for everything, from going to the Dentist to going to a funeral.
OK so you are planning, where should you stay? I would definitely say on property if you can. Best place for us has been the fort wilderness cabins. They sleep 6 and they are single units so if your child has a meltdown you don’t have to worry about them bothering the rooms around you. If they jump on the bed, there is no one under you to complain. Many children are on a special diet. These have full kitchens for you to prepare meals. They get all the benefits of on property hotels like early entry and the stay late nights. I would steer away from the value resorts if your child has problems with noise and crowds. We stayed in one this past visit and it was OK, not too loud and I am sure that there are places where you can stay there that are quieter than others, ask when booking. Also if you are going in early December I would avoid these hotels at all costs, they have the Pop Warner cheerleading competition those weeks(not sure which week but I know it is early Dec) and there are tons of kids and it gets loud, Or so I have heard from parents that have gone on this trip. That leads into when to go. Best times if you can do it would be to go Late September, early October, early November, almost anytime between 2nd week in January to before spring break, then middle of april to late may. Ok so I think i just mentioned value season. Crowds are less, temps are better, and the combo of those two makes for a much more enjoyable vacation. I got an OK from the boys school for the vacation because I explained to the the difficulties of traveling during other times with him. The other boys all get straight A’s and made up their work almost before we left. Also if you have one that is really sensitive to textures and scents consider binging your own sheets, pillow and blanket for them. Some kids do not like the feel of other blankets. If you have the room I say bring it.
How are you going to get there? Flying may be a good choice. Again prepare your child about what is going to be going on when you are on the plane. Buy a book, or get one of those toddler movies about planes. If you do not have assigned seating I would make sure one person in your party gets on first and save your seats, I would get on as late as possible so that they are not sitting there for so long. Bring a DVD player (and earphones) with your child’s favorite movies. Tell your attendant about your child. I try to sit in the front row so there are no seats to be kicked in front of him, or I try to make sure someone from our family is in front of us. I think the same rules apply here as to with any child, bring snacks, things to occupy, their favorite blanket or toy. Whatever you can to make them comfortable. Also a change of clothes for both of you!
OK so you’ve made your reservations to go now what? More planning. If your child is able ask them what kind of rides they want to ride. There are many dark rides, and my son is not a big fan of those. To make him less scared we got him a small flashlight to turn on and flash on his feet if he became scared. Or we also had glow stick necklaces at the dollar store that he wore if he got scared. These worked well with him, but he would not ride Pirates of Caribbean, and did not like haunted mansion. Another thing that my son didn’t like at the time was any movies (we hadn’t seen a movie in the theater in about 4 years) so other children may have problems with the movie type attractions, like Philharmagic, Muppetvision, Honey I Shrunk the Audience and Tough to be a Bug. There are lots of stimulation in these movies which may prove to be too much. If you try these movies I would see about sitting near the exit(talk to a attendant beforehand) so if they become frightened you can leave without much of a disturbance. Also one that I can say that after talking to others with children who have gone to WDW Stitches great escape is not a good one for them. If you have an adventurous child try the barnstormer and work from there. My son just started riding roller-coaster’s(which is great for us because everyone rides in our family :) )There are lots of mild rides in the Magic kingdom for them and it is my sons favorite park. Epcot is nice and you can have your kids make masks (for free) and take them all around the park and collect little “charms” for their mask. Sometimes this a good time to break from the hustle of the park because I rarely saw these tables busy. They are also a good place to rest since most are in air conditioned buildings and have tables and chairs. Hollywood studios has a lot of shows that may prove to be too much for your child, unless, like mine, they like loud noises. A couple of stunt shows and although Fantasmmic is a wonderful show, it can be kinda loud and scary for some kids. The playhouse disney show was one of my sons favorite. Simple and musical, he really enjoyed it and we enjoyed the break from the heat. Animal Kingdom is great if they like zoos and animals. My son LOVES the Lion King show and even got up there and danced with them. (lots of tears there).
Best advice ever…get a disability pass. You can get it at guest services, just tell them that you have a child with autism or whatever disability they have. They will give you a pass for that child and 6 members of their family to go through the fast pass entrance or another special entrance, for the attraction. You may have to wait a little but you avoid most of the line with all those people and that is where my son has had meltdowns before because too many people in too small of place.
More good advice, this goes for everyone, take a break, come back to the room, swim, decompress, do some therapy if needed, nap, whatever you need to do. This helps everyone. We return to the park refreshed and ready to go.
Another bit of advice, take your own car (or rent one) Lots of people on a bus could lead to a melt down, one day we did want to take the bus back from Hollywood studios and it took us 45 minutes to get on a bus. And that was during a slow season. Strollers on the buses are not a fun thing either.
Couple things we got for our son when we go on vacation is they have these temporary tattoos that say I have autism, if I’m lost please help me be found. and you can write your cell number on them. Very helpful for little ones who either do not talk or do not know phone numbers(i can’t even remember my husbands number…lol) When he was little(4/5) we got one of those backpack leashes, for when he wanted to walk, or we were in line. Little sweaty hands can slip out very easily combo that with a horde of people leaving a show it could end in separation. Some people bring headsets for their kids to block out sounds of fireworks. Not sure where they get these but I did see them in a gift shop when we went to the time trials for the Indy 500. So maybe check a racing website.a When he was younger we got him one of those backpack leashes, now I know some people have problems with having a child on a “leash” but my son HATED holding hands and made it really difficult to hold onto his hand. Most of the time he was in a stroller but there were times when he had to walk. This “backpack” was winderful for those times. He could walk freely more or less and I still had a hold of him. I think it also helped give him a little squeeze, he likes pressure so I think this helped relieve stress sometimes. THey are pretty strong and never came apart from him pulling on it.
Characters~ My son seemed to like the human characters, like Cinderella, Sleeping Beuty,ect. Sometimes the big huge stuffed animals can be frighting to any kid but sometimes for these kids as well. If you tell the character handler your situation they will be accommodating and tell the character about your child so as not to approach it or try to touch it if the child is not ready or want to. Some of my best photos are just of my son staring at Mickey. My sons favorite character is Cinderella, he even danced with her when we ate at 1900 park faire.(more tears!) So if your child has never experienced characters before maybe start off with the human characters.
Food~Many children are on restricted diets. So eating is sometimes difficult when on the go. When making advance dining reservations, tell the agent about your restrictions. I believe they will note it on your reservation. Also when you get into the restaurant, tell your server about your restrictions, sometimes they will go get a chef who, if you are at a buffet, will tell you what you can and cannot eat. My son is not on any restrictions, but my niece has Celiacs and when they went they found lots to eat and the chefs were very good at getting her food that she could eat. Also helps if you stay in a place with a kitchen. Like in the cabins at fort wilderness. Also I believe that they allow you to take small snacks into the park. So if you can, pack a couple in your bad so that you have something on hand. You may be able to request info about ingredients and food offerings at certain restaurants if you ask. You can also check out All Ears for the menus ahead of time.
OK well I think I have touched on all the important stuff, if you have any questions please fell free to contact Kristin to get my email address. I’d love to be able to make your vacation more enjoyable. Also if you have any tips to share please do. Life is all about learning from others.
Disney World is the Most Magical Place On Earth. Be sure to learn how to make the most of your trip by reading the Disney World Training series. You can also browse all the articles I have written in an easy to use outline. And if you are ready to book your trip, be sure to read about the perks of using an authorized Disney vacation planner (plus it’s FREE!).