Disneyland with an Autistic Preschooler: Six Tips

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During our Thanksgiving vacation, we took the kids to Disneyland. We’d long been worried about it since the boy… well, he has a hard time with new things. As you know, he’s on the ASD (autism) spectrum, and though he’s fairly high functioning in many ways, he has real problems with rigid thinking and inability to understand social norms. Plus, with his communication delays, it’s harder for him to “use his words” than the average preschooler.

However, over the past year, he’s really bloomed. He’s a lot more flexible than he used to be, a lot more verbal, and he’s tall enough to ride every ride in the park. Since Disneyland is one of his daddy’s and my favorite places, and it’s only a short drive from my parents’ house, we decided to take the plunge.

It was a little bumpy, but overall, we had a blast.

So I thought I’d share with you a few lessons I learned over the course of the day; I hope they’re helpful.

Get The Disability Pass

I was hesitant about this, because my son has no physical handicap (though he does have low muscle tone and tires more easily than your average kid), but we decided to do it just in case–in case of what, I don’t know, but nevertheless we stood in line at City Hall and presented our tickets and got our disability pass and were therefore able to “wait in line” for one ride at a time without really waiting in line. Slightly better than a FastPass.

Now, I know there are a lot of people out there who think “autistic” is a synonym for “spoiled.” I certainly feel that judgment from time to time and I also wonder, quite often, what my son is truly capable and incapable of doing. However, the last thing anyone needs during their Disneyland vacation is one of my son’s freak-outs. Tantrums, to the outsider, and okay, they are tantrums, but here’s an example:

My husband showed my son a bunch of Disneyland videos to prepare him for the trip. Upon seeing the Autopia video, he declared he was going to drive a yellow car. From there, the color yellow became increasingly important; he’s eating out of a yellow bowl right now. He built it up and built it up and though everyone told him repeatedly that there might not be a yellow car available and that it might not happen that way, he could not get it out of his head. It had to be a yellow car. That was the way it was going to be.

Which segues into my next point…

Prepare Your Child… But Not Too Much

When we got there, there were NO yellow cars. So he saw the gold cars and decided they were yellow. But there were only a few gold cars and when we got over to the entrance after using our disability pass to get there, it wasn’t a matter of waiting one or two car rides to get the color he wanted; we would have had to stand there for at least fifteen minutes, creating a burden for the rest of our group, the Disneyland cast members–everyone. Because I do not want “autistic” to mean “spoiled,” I did not let him stand there and wait for the world to come to him. We got in the red car that pulled up next to us, with me spouting tons of nonsense about how red cars are the very best and the very fastest, and he seemed fine–but then he ran into himself. That’s the only way I can describe it. My son’s brain is a maze; nay, a labyrinth. There are obstacles everywhere and he can’t always see them until they smack him in the face.

Anyway, he spent the whole ride screaming, clawing my hands off the steering wheel, and kicking his feet in the air. My parents, at least, got the more amusing view of his tennis shoes waving around over the top of the car.

Good times.

What I gleaned from this: we should not have shown him that video. Other videos, yes: rides he would not have been immediately excited about. But driving cars? Yeah, he was going to be into that whether we prepared him or not. Cars are his obsession. So maybe if he didn’t have any time to build expectations, it would have been easier.

Know Your Hook

Sometimes autistic kids have the oddest obsessions. We thought we had ours in the form of cars, but over the course of the day we learned that the biggest thing that lured Sam toward a ride was conveyor belts. Not that most of the rides involve literal conveyor belts, but on the boat rides, there’s always a section where the boat is being moved along in a conveyor belt fashion, and that was the BEST. He didn’t care so much about the pirates singing and pillaging; he was stoked to be on a conveyor belt.

Don’t Underestimate Your Child

After watching the YouTube videos, my son really wanted to go on Splash Mountain.  This worried us a bit–could he possibly imagine the feeling of falling so far, so fast? Would he have a panic attack mid-drop and be inconsolable for the rest of the trip?

We decided that before he could go on Splash Mountain (he’s tall enough to go on every ride at Disneyland, which might not be true of your preschooler) he should try Gadget’s Go Coaster in Toon Town: a roller coaster designed for the little ones. While I didn’t see it firsthand because I was holding his napping sister (and then hunting down popcorn for her once she woke up), he apparently laughed through the whole ride, holding his hands in the air, mimicking the people in front of him. I then took him on Splash Mountain and he loved it, again refusing to hold on (though I clutched his arm and ducked down on the main drop cuz I’m a chicken). Then he went on Thunder Mountain with his dad and Gramps and had a blast. He would have done Space Mountain if it hadn’t been so late at night and he hadn’t been so sleepy.

My point: I assumed my kid would be scared of fast rides. He’s afraid of a lot of things, and his fears don’t always make sense. He’s also a huge sensory seeker. Thus, he loves being moved quickly, thrown around, and dropped from high places.

Find Their Favorite Characters

The people who play the costumed characters at Disneyland are arguably the best people in the world. They are all actors (I know because I used to be an actor and there were always fliers up advertising job openings–also, a friend of mine worked for a long time as Tigger) and they have more pep than the Energizer bunny on a caffeine kick. Except maybe that makes them sound manic. They’re sweet. They’re gentle. In my experience, they’re very perceptive about the way a child approaches them, and how to interact. And though there’s always a huge line to greet them, they give each kid the time they need (to an extent, obviously).

Be Prepared to Go Slowly

This is true of all kids, I’m sure, but ASD kids tend to need their routines, which means that snack time is snack time and lunch time is lunch time and if you’re lucky enough to have a kid that naps, god help you if you miss it. This means less spontaneity. Get a multiple day pass if you can. Ride the train around the park when the little legs get tired. Chill.

 

I hope that’s helpful! Every ASD kid is different–a sensory avoider, for example, might not want to go to Disneyland at all. And maybe that’s tip #7: only take them if they really want to go. I’ve had a really hard time dealing with my kid’s dislike of some things I love (like Halloween!) but in the case of Disneyland, it’s not worth pushing. Have you seen the ticket prices?

 

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