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Autism and Disney Parks: How to Help Your Autistic Child Have a Great Visit

Autism and Disney Parks – How to Help Your Autistic Child Have a Great Visit

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When you’re visiting a sensory-filled place like Disneyland or Walt Disney World with a sensory-challenged child in tow, it’s good to have a game plan in place. Children on the autism spectrum like routine. Allowing for the comfort of a child’s schedule and getting them to step outside of it for a time can be a tricky balancing act.

But with a little preparation, you can navigate the Happiest Place on Earth and keep your amazing spectrum child happy at the same time. If you’ve been researching autism and Disney Parks, here are my tips for how to help your autistic child have a great visit:

PLANNING YOUR VISIT

Bring a copy of your child’s diagnosis letter

While Disney Park employees cannot legally ask for proof of your child’s diagnosis, I always pack it anyway and offer to produce it. Having documentation can do nothing but help when working with the Guest Relations department to secure a Disability Access Service (DAS) Card. More information on this below.

Pack items your child finds comforting

Bring stuffed animals, small incentives or snack items that will soothe your autistic child in the event of a sensory meltdown or a lack of patience over standing in line. Let your child be part of the decision making process of what items will be packed. My son carried a plush Woody, the character from Toy Story, around with him. It not only made him feel safe and secure, it made him feel as if he’d brought a buddy to the park with him.

Don’t over plan your day

Like many children on the autism spectrum, my son likes to take new situations cautiously and slowly until he feels comfortable. It’s counter intuitive to the excitement most of us feel upon arrival at the Disney Parks. Be prepared that you and your family may need to slow down and take your visit at your autistic child’s pace. 

Book a Hotel Near Disneyland

When my son gets overwhelmed, it’s best to remove him from a situation and allow him time to calm down before slowly putting him back in. During our visit to Disneyland, we chose to stay at Hilton Anaheim, which is a 10-minute walk from the park. Booking a hotel near Disneyland made it possible for us to return to the hotel for a midday dip in the pool and return to the park later on with a renewed sense of fun.

AT THE PARK

Stop off at Guest Relations

Visit the Guest Relations area at the front of any Disney Park to request a Disability Access Service (DAS) Card (formerly known as the Guest Assistance Card). There are two places at the Disneyland Resort where families can get a DAS card: City Hall at Disneyland or the Chamber of Commerce at Disney California Resort. Your child must be present in order to be issued a card.

Under this new system at Disneyland, if DAS card holders find themselves with a ride wait time longer than 10 minutes and can’t wait in line, they simply visit one of the various Guest Relations kiosks located within the park to be given a return time. At Walt Disney World, each of the attractions can offer a return time. To ride another ride, return to a kiosk at Disneyland or an attraction at Disney World for a new ride time.

Watch your child for cues

This is something special needs parents are very used to doing. In all of the excitement of the Disney Parks, this normally routine activity can be easy to forget. No one knows a kid like their parents do, so be sure to watch for those cues that will let you know what they need and when they need it.

Take breaks during the day

Taking breaks allows children on the autism spectrum an opportunity to recalibrate their coping skills and helps them get a better handle on challenging situations. We found quiet corners to kick back in both Disney California Adventure and Disneyland. Some of them were in cafés with a cool drink, others were in stores along Disneyland’s Main Street and Disney California Adventure’s Buena Vista Street where we could quietly browse or look at a book. There are benches throughout all of the Disney Parks where you can sit with your child and simply take in the scene from a distance until you’re ready to be part of it all again.

Let Your Child’s Imagination go wild

Remember when I mentioned returning to the hotel for a swim break? Doing this so reinvigorated my son that he returned to the park in the evening in his Buzz Lightyear costume. Apparently visitors had gotten so used to seeing mini princesses spill out of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, that a space ranger was a refreshing change. The response he received from employees and park visitors alike was tremendous! He was saluted by a maintenance crew who told him they would inform Star Command of his arrival, as well as high-fived and treated like a hero by park patrons.

What did all of that pixie dust covered attention do for him? It brought him out of his shell and helped him interact with people, something he can be a little hesitant to do. So, take it from me, if your child has the costume of a favorite Disney character, let them be that character during their visit to the park, I saw plenty of evidence to suggest others will play along.

If you’re planning a trip to one of the Disney Parks and you have concerns about whether your child’s special needs can be accommodated, send an email to disability.services@disneyparks.com or call (407) 560-2547. You can also find more information on the Disney Parks Disability Access Service Card Fact Sheet.

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Kristine lives in Mountain View, California, where she is the mother of a gifted girl athlete and a special needs charmer. Like almost everything in her house,…

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