Please welcome guest blog writer Kathy Kelly. Kathy blogs about Disney and Autism at The Many Adventures of a Disney-Lovin’ Spectrum Mom Her “Box” name is KathyRN137.
Did you know that April is Autism Awareness Month in the United States? As both a Disney fan and the mother of a child with autism, this is the ideal time for me to talk about some of the many reasons why a Walt Disney World vacation is practically tailor-made for families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
For those unfamiliar with it, autism is a neurological disorder that causes problems with thought, communication and social interaction. There is a wide variety of symptoms and conditions associated with autism, but not everyone displays them all, or with the same severity. That’s why it is often described as a spectrum disorder.
About 1 in 88* children in the U.S. has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). No one knows what causes ASD; that’s why the puzzle piece has become the symbol for Autism Awareness.
Before visiting Walt Disney World our family had attempted to make a few short trips to the beach, to national historical sites — even to other theme parks — but these excursions were always more stressful than pleasurable because of my son’s sensory and behavioral issues. After experiencing that one-of-a-kind Disney magic, however, our family will not vacation anywhere else!
Here are the top five reasons why I believe a Disney vacation is perfect for Autism Spectrum families:
#5 – The sheer number of planning resources that are available.
Families are accustomed to thoroughly preparing the member with ASD for new experiences and a Disney vacation is no exception. It is vital that fears, sensitivities and special needs be anticipated and managed – otherwise no one will have fun!
Because of its immense popularity, there are more planning resources available to the Disney traveler than for any other vacation destination on the planet! These include official and unofficial websites, blogs, discussion forums and mobile apps which can help the planner avoid situations which would be upsetting and/or frightening to the person with ASD. In addition, travel agents who graduate from Disney’s “College of Knowledge” are trained to be excellent resources for special needs guests.
For those who prefer to utilize books, I highly recommend PassPorter’s Open Mouse for Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line, which is specifically written for Disney guests with a variety of special needs.
People with ASD are often intensely attracted to visual media, so the official planning DVD can be put to good use, allowing the person get an idea of what ride vehicles, shows and resort rooms will look like. (Just be prepared for him or her to watch that DVD over and over!) Now that my son is getting older, he enjoys watching Disney fireworks and parade videos posted on YouTube. As the Fantasyland expansion progresses, I plan to show him plenty of video footage of the new area so it will not feel unfamiliar to him on our next visit.
#4 – Guests have the ability to create a daily “schedule”.
A week of family time spent relaxing under a beach umbrella and swimming in the ocean sounded like a great idea at the time, but my son hated it! Schedule and routine are often very important to the person with ASD, often to the point of rigidity. Without it he could not cope and began to act out, which pretty much drove the rest of the family crazy!
Thanks to the planning resources above, a Disney vacation can provide needed structure to each day: “First we’ll go to Adventureland, then Frontierland, and then we’ll have lunch.” There are enough things to see and do in the theme park environment to keep the person with ASD fully engaged and interactive.
That said, the daily plan should include periods of rest and opportunities for the ASD guest to de-compress. Staying at a resort on Disney property makes it convenient to build in time for a nap or a swim during the day.
#3 – Dietary accommodations are not only available, they are easy to procure.
Many travelers worry about food allergies and that special diets will not be accommodated while on vacation. Many children, especially, who have ASD follow gluten-free and/or casein-free diets. These and all dietary requests are welcomed by the chefs at Walt Disney World and there are numerous dining and snacking options available.
Guests can contact Guest Services prior to and during their trip for dietary information and to make special dietary requests.
There are also unofficial websites such as Allergy-Free Mouse that are wholly dedicated to assisting the Disney guest with special dietary requirements.
#2 -The Guest Assistance Card can be a helpful tool.
Individualized accommodations can be granted to eligible Disney guests based upon their specific needs so that the entire family can enjoy their vacation together. The Guest Assistance Card (GAC) can be obtained from Guest Services, located in each of the theme parks.
One of the more commonly requested accommodations for children with ASD is that they be allowed to use a stroller as a wheelchair when waiting in crowded, noisy lines for shows and attractions. Many children find it easier to avoid sensory overload (read: MELTDOWN!) when allowed to remain in the snug, secure environment of the stroller.
And now… the #1 reason why Disney and Autism are a perfect match: Cast Member Magic!
Disney Cast Members are trained to treat every visitor as a guest and to make every guest feel special. The vast majority of Cast Members are kind, helpful individuals who genuinely care about guests and strive to make their Disney experience the best that it can be.
If your family member’s special needs are invisible, don’t be afraid to ask Cast Members for assistance. Once they realize that you require accommodation they are usually ready and willing to help. In my own experience, many of them have gone “above and beyond” my expectations in order to help my child fully experience the Disney magic!
Living with the challenges of my son’s ASD can sometimes be quite difficult. I’ve often remarked to my husband that Walt Disney World is the only place where we can enjoy a vacation “like a normal family.” That, in itself, is a truly magical feeling!
*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 30, 2012.