Taking a child on the autism spectrum to Disney World

This is a guest post from Joanna Varnum, the mother of a child who is on the autism spectrum. Here's Jo...

My husband and I love Walt Disney World, so when we found out that our son was on the autism spectrum (his official diagnosis is Asperger syndrome), we worried that we’d never be able to enjoy our favorite place as a family. After all, what could be more overwhelming to a child who hates noise, crowds, and unfamiliarity than Disney World?

Thankfully, after two successful visits with our child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), I can confidently say that not only can you survive Walt Disney World with a child on the spectrum, but your child may end up loving the vacation just as much as the rest of the family does!

There’s a saying that goes, “If you’ve met one child with autism, then you’ve met one child with autism.” Every child on the spectrum has different strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. What worked for our family may not work perfectly for yours, but I want to share some of the tips I’ve put together for families with ASD planning a Walt Disney World vacation.

Prepare ahead of time

First of all, do all you can to prepare your child so that he or she knows what to experience on your trip. One of the best resources is the free planning DVD that Walt Disney World offers each year. It gives an overview of each park and features several attractions and/or shows in each. It also talks about the resorts on property, the water parks, and many activities that are off the beaten path.

(Note from Shannon: Disney also has a PDF for people with cognitive disabilities with lots of helpful info, including where to take breaks, how long each rides takes, etc. You can download that here.)

My son not only loved watching this video (ok, we all did), but he loved repeating his favorite parts whenever we would talk about our upcoming vacation. Similarly, YouTube is your friend. There are videos of rides, shows, parades, fireworks… pretty much anything you can think of. In fact, one of my son’s favorite videos that we found featured the line in Test Track. So while we waited in line for Test Track, he felt incredibly comfortable and excited (more on lines later).

(Note from Shannon: I've included YouTube videos in all of my park guides to make it easy to watch all of the videos for each park in 1 spot.)

There are so many resources out there to help get your children with (or without!) ASD prepped for Disney. My Disney Experience has maps of everything on Disney property. Many children with ASD are visual and concrete learners, so this is a great tool to help them.

If your child has been before, or if someone he or she knows has been, show them pictures of the trip. Maybe your child (like mine) loves calendars. If so, make them a customized calendar with pictures of your plans for each day of your trip.

If your child loves lists or charts, present your itinerary in those ways and let them tote it with them during the trip. Also, Shannon’s podcasts are awesome! We listen to them in the car, and my son, while not understanding all the logistics of planning a trip, enjoys hearing about his favorite rides and places.

We did all we could to prepare our son for our trips and to let him know what he could expect each day. But you don’t want to get too specific for the simple reason that plans change.

Our son knew which parks we were visiting each day, and a handful of attractions that he was especially excited about, but we didn’t tell him, “ok, today we’re going to start at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and then ride Peter Pan and then…” for the sheer reason if something changed we didn’t want him to get upset.

Instead, we told him that we were spending the day at Magic Kingdom and would get to ride Buzz Lightyear and it’s a small world and would get to eat lunch at the Beast’s castle. Since he had watched all of the other attractions on YouTube and the planning DVD, he was able to adapt when we would tell him after each ride what our next activity was.

Set appropriate expectations

Another tip before you leave for your trip actually has nothing to do with your child and everything to do with you. Keep your expectations in check. This is especially hard for me, because my expectations are very high when it comes to a WDW vacation.

I was concerned before my son’s first visit that he was going to melt down and have a horrible experience. A friend of mine said to me, “he may not love it the way you do, but that doesn’t mean he won’t love it on his own terms.” Those were wise words that I kept reminding myself of as we rode Buzz Lightyear for the 20th time in three days.

We never even made it to Adventureland on that trip – I didn’t even get a Dole Whip! That was a tough pill for me to swallow, but my son was as happy as could be. I’m not saying that your child with ASD has to dictate your whole trip, but in many circumstances it makes for a more enjoyable vacation if you are able to accommodate them.

In that vein, Disney World is not the place to push your child. Pick your battles and do all you can to avoid meltdowns. But at the same time, know ahead of time that meltdowns are probably going to occur at some point on your trip (again, this is for children with or without ASD!).

On our last trip, my son decided he wasn’t going near Spaceship Earth, despite loving that ride before. I think he got it confused with Mission: Space, and my husband and I spent half our day at Epcot trying to convince him that he’d love Spaceship Earth. Long story short: he never stepped foot on the ride, and we wasted a ton of time focusing on this minor detail. We should have just let him know that the ride was an option if he changed his mind and moved on.

My son has Sensory Processing Disorder and has been a very picky eater for most of his life. During his first trip, he pretty much lived on crackers and fruit sticks. While that wouldn’t fly at home, I really didn’t feel like battling for an hour so that my son would take a tiny bite of a churro. My mantra was, “anything goes at Disney World.”

It’s just a few days of their lives – living on crackers won’t kill them. Remember, you can bring unopened food and drink into the parks, so take advantage! Maybe your child isn’t a picky eater but wants to wear a specific hat each day or something. Repeat after me – anything goes at Disney World.

Keep a familiar routine

When you’re at home, chances are you do many things all day long for your child with ASD. Take some time to consider how you can implement those routines on your vacation. For instance, do all you can to relatively stay on your child’s schedule. Yes, it physically pains me to go back to the resort for two hours each afternoon, but it’s worth it in the long run.

My son benefits from occupational therapy, so we implement therapeutic exercises in the parks. He enjoys having his legs, arms, and back brushed with a sensory brush, so we do that several times a day. Loud noises upset him, so we brought noise canceling headphones in our bag.

You can create social stories for your child regarding the many activities that take place, for instance going through security or ordering food. Again, providing your child with a visual itinerary can help them tremendously. These are just some of the techniques that we use for our son, but consider what works on a daily basis for your child at home and think of how you can modify those practices to be used at Disney World.

Focus on their interests

Many children with ASD have very specific interests. Disney World is so much more than meeting princesses and Mickey – there is truly something for everyone. Maybe your child loves history. He’ll love World Showcase and the Hall of Presidents.

If your child loves science, have a ball at Innoventions and Tomorrowland. If your child loves animals, you may want to plan more than one day at Animal Kingdom. My son can’t get enough of outer space – did I mention we rode Buzz Lightyear 20 times during his first visit?

Consider getting a Disability Access Service card

Additionally, Disney World has services in the park available for special needs individuals. I called and spoke with a Cast Member to get the details. She explained that Disney World provides a Disability Access Service card to guests with special needs. You can get this card at guest services at each park, and she said that it is not necessary to provide documentation if your disability is invisible, like ASD.

This card allows you to schedule a return time for a ride without waiting in line. So, if the line is 30 minutes long, the CM will note your card, and you’ll return in 30 minutes without having to wait in line. I can’t speak to this practice firsthand, because we didn’t feel the need to do this with our son, but if your child with ASD has a hard time waiting or standing still, this is a great option.

Even if you don’t get a card, don’t hesitate to ask a CM for help if your child is having an issue in the parks. They are trained and experienced to help, and in my experience have always been very accommodating. In fact, some of the most magical moments of our trips have been when CMs and characters have gone the extra mile to put a smile on my son’s face.

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I really feel strongly that a Disney World vacation can be a great experience for a child with ASD with just a little extra planning. Don’t forget to think of your child’s strengths and how they’ll come in handy on your trip.

My son has a crazy good memory and can remember minor details of his trips, so I have no doubt that we’ve created special memories that will last a lifetime. I can’t wait to take him back – and maybe this time he’ll ride Spaceship Earth.

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