ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). It is a developmental disorder that affects the brain. And while no two people are affected exactly the same way by ASD, in general autistic individuals have difficulty connecting with the people they love and the environment that surrounds them–two pillars of the Disney vacation experience. For this reason, many families with ASD children feel helpless and throw their hands up in the air at the thought of taking their brood to The Happiest Place on Earth, but our Neurotic Disney People of the Month have made it their personal mission to empower parents in this demographic so that they can live out their dream of an enjoyable Disney vacation. Meet the Pilgrim family, Ray (NDD#104), Rachel (NDM#267), Josh(NDK#47), and Rebecca(NDK#48).
Ray and Rachel were acquainted with Disney before they had children, but it was their autistic son, Joshua, that made them fall head-over-heels-in-love with Disney. Being diagnosed as somewhere between moderate and severely autistic, Josh has difficulty communicating and relating with his family. But upon their first trip to Disney with Josh, Ray and Rachel witnessed something extraordinary–something that some parents of autistic kids wait a lifetime to see. He connected. “He recognized the characters in the parks,” Rachel explains, “And for whatever reason it encouraged him to speak. He made more of an effort to express himself. He even made more of an effort to potty train when we were at the parks.”
They were sold as they knew first hand that Disney really was a place where dreams came true, and the brand solidified itself as an important part of their lives. Since then their family has made many trips to Disney World, Disneyland, and even on Disney cruises, gaining a vast amount of knowledge and experience in traveling Disney style with a special needs child. Knowing that many other families could benefit from what they learned, Ray and Rachel started up a website called WDW Autism.
The site features a host of information, tips, and even downloadable aids to utilize in the preparation and duration of a Disney trip. Visitors to the site find that each Disney Park is broken down by land and further broken down by attraction to give families an overview as well as detailed explanation of what they can expect in terms of location, type of ride, size of vehicle, Fastpass availability, height requirements, and comments about potential reactions an ASD child might display for each and every exhibit. Occasionally a You Tube video is presented for use as visual preparation for an anxious child who needs plenty of time to adjust to the idea of a fast or spooky encounter. Each attraction is also accompanied by a Josh Rating in which they reveal Josh’s opinion and experience of it.
A very helpful component of the Pilgrims’ site is the compilation of social stories. The WDW Autism site explains, “Social stories are a simple, visual way to describe different situations and identify appropriate behaviors for children with autism.” Basically, it is a method to teach ASD children what to expect and how to respond by sharing a tale about the scenario the child will soon encounter. Because many of these social skills are not innate in those with ASD, the behaviors have to be taught. These colorful and direct social stories that the Pilgrims provide for download assist in this critical aspect of preparation.
The feature I find most creative is the image gallery for smart phones and iTouches The Pilgrims created this for Josh who is almost non-verbal. It is a collection of images of attractions, shows, and restaurants that can be downloaded into portable technology devices. Armed with the photos in an easily transportable and accessible format, Josh was able to communicate his desires to his parents by pointing to the image that he wanted to see next. It was an invaluable tool in promoting a smoother progression throughout the day, and they have now made it available to other families through their site.
Ray, Rachel, Josh, and Rebecca’s mission is motivated by the desire for other challenged families to find the joy that Disney has provided for them. “Disney treats families with special needs so well,” Rachel relays, “and it influences their guests’ behavior too.” She harkens back to that first time Josh met Mickey and his friends at the Character Connection in Epcot. The Pilgrims waited their turn in line, uncertain of how it all would go down. Would there be a scene? How would the characters respond? Would the photographer understand that Josh couldn’t react to verbal cues asking for poses? And would there be backlash from irritated guests that waited behind them in line?
They quietly informed the Cast Member who supervised the line that Josh was autistic. “Everyone, may I please have your attention,” the Cast Member bellowed to the crowd, “We have a very important person with us today, and he will need a little extra time with the characters. We know that you understand the magnitude of our special guest’s visit and are so thankful for your patience.” The guests in line looked at Josh, smiled warmly, and visibly relaxed. “Mickey! Minnie! We have a lover,” the Cast Member announced. Mickey, all his friends, and even the photographer nodded in understanding. The whole atmosphere immediately took on a more calm pace as opposed to the common assembly line feel at the Character Connection.
Mickey was very serene and in no hurry as Josh felt and touched him. He seemed to know that Josh needed this tactile experience for sensory integration. Minnie focused on gently engaging her VIP rather than striking a pose. Chip and Dale paid no attention to the clock once they got their turn with Josh. Playtime was in full effect as they got on the ground and even wrestled with Josh, and the photographer adjusted himself accordingly to capture the candid magic on film.
“It can be done,” Rachel offers to families with autistic children. “Information and proper preparation can open the doors and provide an enjoyable experience for ASD families. You will not go at the same pace as you would with a neurotypical child. You may need to ride the same ride over and over. You may need to follow your child’s lead because you are there for his or her benefit, but it is worthwhile.”
Ray, Rachel, Josh, and Rebecca, you have captured the heart of the Disney Driven Life with your noble efforts to make Disney more accessible to ASD families. We applaud your mission and hope to assist you in extending your reach, so we are bestowing upon you the title of Neurotic Disney Family for the month of July.