Walt Disney World vacation planning can be tricky (even for seasoned travelers!). Families with autistic children or adults have extra accommodations to take into consideration. Today, Shannon talks with Melinda, Amanda, Emily, Lori, and Anthony about traveling with family on the autism spectrum. They share their experiences, tips, and encouragement.
Melinda’s 9 year old son was diagnosed on the spectrum at the end of Kindergarten. Melinda has experience traveling with her son prior to his diagnosis and after. His needs change as he grows and can be different between planning and going on the trip.
Melinda’s son is upset by moisture or getting wet in regular clothes. They can accommodate this with rain jackets and towels. This is more than just about his comfort, but about making sure he can keep his emotions at a pleasurable level.
Melinda and her family travel with two backpacks – one regular touring back pack and one for her son. The temperature changes and any dampness are difficult for him. They travel with neck fans and that helps with the heat and loud noises.
He is also sensitive to noise, so they travel with noise cancelation headphones. However, those can often be hot, so they also bring small foam earplugs to help with noise. This also gives him a choice of what he wants.
They take breaks to help make sure her son gets what he needs. However, Melinda has traveled without her husband, which was difficult because they cannot split up.
Melinda encourages other parents to focus on doing the very best for your child and not worrying about what other people think.
Amanda and two of her sons all have a diagnosis on the spectrum. She received a late diagnosis at 37 years old. Amanda and her sons were all diagnosed closely together after she began doing research.
Amanda is sensitive to emotions and crowds. She was very concerned about this with Disney travel. Her oldest is very curious and interested, which can lead to wandering. Her middle son struggles with lines and has a lot of needs.
In order to accommodate her middle son at Disney, she took him on his own! He was able to take on a lot of control and autonomy because of this, which worked really well.
Another thing that helps with Amanda’s children is getting them their own stroller, even the 10 year old. This really helps with autonomy and navigating the crowds. Bigger strollers for larger kids can be hard to navigate in the parks, but they really help her kids.
Their first trip was when her kids were 6, 4, and 2. Amanda planned everything down to the minute including what they would order at each restaurant. This really helped because she could create a narrative for her children so they would know what to expect.
She also advocates for her children in lines and makes sure that they are not going through very loud rooms or put in tricky situations.
Amanda gives her children a lot of time at the hotel as well. They spend less time in the parks and more time at the pool at the hotel. This is a mind-shift in terms of getting their money’s worth changed to what is bringing her children the most joy.
Amanda and her family do use the Disability Access Service. She feels this gives her children the opportunity to have a similar experience to other children. Amanda has also used Disability Access Service when she’s traveled herself. It is a very vulnerable experience but she had a really wonderful experience with the cast members.
She loves that Disney makes accommodations for her and her family because it shows that the world can change to meet your needs. They are willing to change the expectations to meet a guest where they are.
On one trip, Amanda was traveling with her children without a partner and one of her children had a panic attack. She went to a cast member and they were able to fix it and rearranged things to make their day better. There was no judgment, they just made the changes needed.
Amanda recommends speaking with the chef at a restaurant to accommodate needs. She has her children’s food put in individual bowls because they do not like their food to touch. Amanda encourages parents to be confident in your role as an advocate for your child. Do not be embarrassed or apologize for your child, just ask for what you need.
When using Disability Access Service as a family, they will book things for her oldest son and they will all use the DAS. It’s not easier to have multiple DAS, it’s easier to just pick one. Amanda recommends picking the most adventurous rider and booking what they would like to ride.
Amanda also recommends using Genie+ in conjunction with DAS. This helps to not have any lines at all for any of the rides.
Emily’s 7 year old son is on the spectrum and has ADHD. He was recently diagnosed and they have traveled a couple prior to his diagnosis and a couple since he has been diagnosed.
They had a challenge on their first trip when he took off running and climbing. A cast member recommended Disability Access Service on this trip when he was 2 years old. It was incredibly helpful.
You do not need to have a formal diagnosis in order to utilize Disability Access Service.
Disney is perfect for Emily’s family because her son loves to spin and climb. He loves sensory things. However, they also utilize a stroller with a sunshade and headphones to give him a quiet and safe space.
Even though he is a tall 7 year old, they can utilize a stroller. They previously used the City Mini but they are transitioning to a BOB jogging stroller to accommodate his size.
Emily does not include her child in the planning process because it does not work for her family. If she gives her son a plan and anything has to change, it can be very difficult for him. Emily’s older children are part of the planning, but for her youngest, everything is a complete surprise.
Emily’s son loves rides that are very fast and anything that spins a lot. He is not as interested in the dark rides, but he can appreciate the cooler temperatures.
Emily reviews the menus very closely for her son. He is very particular about food and what the food looks like. She will google to see what the food looks like and show him so he can decide before the trip.
Emily encourages others to ask for what you want. Don’t be afraid to ask for one french fry to know what kind it is. She also requests that food is plated separately.
Lori’s 10 year old daughter is on the spectrum and was diagnosed at age 8. She also is sensory seeking and has ADHD. They began using the Disability Access Service during the pandemic because it made things much easier to navigate.
The DAS gives them a lot of flexibility to arrive when they can and start touring. In order to accommodate her daughter, they stay close to the parks. This gives them the ability to go back to the room during the day.
They utilize headphones on loud rides and during fireworks to help her children. Lori also utilizes a stroller for her younger child to create a little cocoon.
Lori has had very different experiences in Disneyland as compared to Disney World. She felt as though Disneyland was not as accommodating to her.
Lori had a really good experience on the Disney Wonder (listen to her on episode 310). She enjoys the Disney Cruise for a simple vacation. It was much easier for her to navigate.
If traveling at a busy time, Lori will utilize Genie+ and DAS but it can be difficult to remember which one is which. When it is less busy, she will only use DAS to keep things simple.
Anthony and his husband have two children, ages, 5 and 6, that are both on the spectrum. In addition, one of his sons has some medical needs including a g-tube and respiratory concerns.
Due to their children’s energy level, they opt to get one or two bedroom villas when they go to Disney World. They often stay at Boardwalk or Copper Creek. This gives them more space and good locations.
Anthony also says it takes a lot of planning. They take frequent breaks which sometimes means splitting up – one parent with one child. One of their boys loves rides and one does not, which means they need to switch with rides.
While both of their sons has autism, they are very different. One is high sensory and one is low sensory. Both are eligible for Disability Access Service but they have had some complications with this. Originally, they were only added to one of their son’s pass, which created some technical issues.
Anthony recommends that even if you qualify for more than one Disability Access Service, you only use one as a family or traveling party.
While it is an adventure traveling with two children with autism, Anthony and his husband treat vacations for them as well. It is good for their mental health to book a sitter (Kids Nite Out has sitters trained in autism!) and have some time as adults. Anthony has used Kids Nite Out many times and has had incredible experiences with only one expectation.
Although Anthony and his husband are foodies, they do not have their children at signature restaurants. one of their children is fed by a g-tube, but the other has preferences. They try to eat at quick restaurants and pay as soon as possible. Their children are usually good for about 30 minutes and that’s it.
Traveling with two children with autism is about setting expectations. You cannot do everything but they prioritize the things that are important. They do not spend a lot of money on food but spend money on experiences, like dessert parties!
Disney World is very accommodating. If you present the challenge, the cast members will present solutions. Know your children and focus on your family to have the best experience. Anthony encourages people to do Disney the way you want to. You can have different experiences each time you go!
Anthony and his family have done Disney Cruises as well. Because of the ages of his children, cruising is an ideal vacation. The controlled environment and predictable schedule make it easier for them.
When Anthony has taken his children to the kid’s club, he will have a conversation with the cast members. Anthony will present the challenges and the cast members will present a solution. His children absolutely love the kid’s club.
This might mean that parents need to take an advocate role for their children. Anthony suggests having a conversation with the cast members. He has had great success with this. This also means that Anthony and his husband get some uninterrupted time while the boys are in the kid’s club!
It’s really nice that everything is included in the cost of the cruise. There is no additional cost for the kid’s club.
Links for this episode:
- Planning Resources for Visiting Walt Disney World with Special Needs
- Taking a child on the autism spectrum to Walt Disney World
- Guide to Disability Access Service (DAS) at Walt Disney World
- How to use Rider Switch at Walt Disney World
- Orlando Medical Rentals
- Kids Nite Out
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