Thursday, November 10, 2011

Autism and Disney World

Here is something you don't know.  I am a Disneyphile of the highest degree.  

I grew up going to Disneyland.  I've been to Disney a number of times over the years and though I know the bottom line is corporate is out to get my money, I can't help but get excited when I see those iconic mouse ears or any of the other characters.   

It all started with my parents who honeymooned at Disneyland way back when.  Then as we grew, they took us to Disneyland each and every vacation they could.  If my Dad had a conference in LA--we added an extra day for Disney.  We saw just about every Disney movie that hit the theater in rerelease and then in VHS format.  If it was Disney, we were on it. 

For my parents' 30th anniversary, they sponsored a family trip to Disney with everyone.  My oldest sister was the only with kids at the time, and I was fairly newly married.  Since then we've all gathered (with our own funds) for their 35th, 40th and our next gathering is planned for their 50th.  

Our combine family trip in 2002 should have tipped me off more.  Whirlwind was pretty young and could not stand any lines.  He got in other people's spaces, but hated it when they were in his.  He had no patience and was over stimulated and hyper.  I spent a good part of the trip taking him outside to calm down.  I thought it was age, though I knew his behavior was more exaggerated than other children the same age.  

For my parent's 40th anniversary, we first tried taking the Nintendo DS each child had gotten for Christmas.   It helped in the line situation, but the kids were "plugged in"  and they got overly grumpy as they often do when they have too much game time.  Conversation was nonexistent.   We still had meltdowns, though not as many because the DS's would keep them distracted in lines.  

And so it went.  We'd make the best of our situation and press onward.  

We had good times.  I'll never forget when Lawboy first saw the Playhouse Disney (now Disney Junior) performance.  He was so excited to see Bear in the Big Blue House.  

The things they would see on those trips led us on journeys of discovery about so many topics.  Whales and dolphins were a favorite for years because of our side trip to Sea World.  (Did you know orcas are technically the largest members of the dolphin family?)  Soarin' was a contributing factor to the airplane obsession.    The first time we went to the  Smithsonian Air and Space museum I asked Firstborn to tell me about the planes and he did--more than the placards in front of the displays.  The Boneyard in Animal Kingdom contributed to the dinosaur phase.  Those are just a few examples.  

Part of the reason we struggled for so long is we simply didn't know recognize our children's quirks as anything but quirks.  We thought Firstborn was simply shy.  He was a bit more anxious than other children, but nothing more.  His fear of loud noises and the dark would be something he would grow out of.  

We were wrong.

Whirlwind was just hyper and impatient.  We did recognize ADHD around 2007, but it took much longer to realize he too had difficulties picking up on subtle distinctions in tone and body language.  We thought his moving into other people's space was a reflection of his hyperactivity--not that he actually had trouble recognizing another person's space.  We thought he had some trouble regulating his emotions, but we didn't understand that it was related to the mixture of things going on with him. 

The journey in getting our children diagnosed or evaluated are topics for another day.  

My purpose in writing first of two parts on Disney with ASD children is to help other families with one or more children on the autism spectrum learn from my experiences and hopefully avoid as many pitfalls and frustrations as possible.  Each child on the spectrum is different and has slightly different symptoms or aspects of autism.  No two children are alike and that is especially true in my family.  

Fast forward my account to this year, 2011. I had heard of disability passes at amusement parks in the past, but it wasn't until my dear friend Michele who also has an ASD child told me that children with autism qualify for those passes that things changed for us.  

In my opinion the cast members at Disney were very kind to work with.  A disability pass is good for groups up to six people.  From there we were told to present the pass to cast members at each ride line entrance and we would be directed to the proper place to line up.  Most of the time it was the fast pass line, though occasionally it was the queue area for people with physical or mobility disabilities.  These lines often had minimal if any wait time which was the biggest blessing to our family.  For once we were able to stand in line and talk with one another because the waits were as minimal as they were.  My children are working on their reciprocal speech skills, but they are pretty good at answering questions and in those moments waiting (which was never too long to create meltdowns), I got to learn a lot about what they think about.  

An added bonus with the disability pass--it eliminated the need to run from one end of the parks to another in an effort to use our fast passes.  The running back and forth was difficult for our kids (run and wait, run and wait), and they hated passing by rides they wanted to see, but couldn't because of deadlines (fast pass times, reservations, etc).  

We picked a less busy time of year for our last vacation.  It meant it was too cold for us to go to the water parks, but the tradeoff in lower crowd levels was worth it to me.  I also changed my expectations for our vacation and we took it at a slower pace which also worked for my family.  It was a big change for me, but it made for a happier family overall.  My children need time for transitions and are often slow to get moving in the morning.  I have to admit at times this drives me a little nuts, because I grew up getting to the parks before they open and riding as many rides as possible in that golden time zone before the majority of the crowds get there.  

With these changes we ended up having our best vacation ever.  It was relaxed and fun and better than I ever dreamed we'd be able to have with our challenges.  

I'm breaking this up into two posts because of length.  Stay tuned for part two where I list my specific advice for a Disney trip with children on the autism spectrum.

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