Even though my son Joshua looks normal for an eight year old, he has autism and is very limited verbally. He is also a veteran of the Walt Disney World parks. He knows what he wants to do, but he gets frustrated when he can’t communicate his desires to us at the parks. To help with this we have created a picture schedule of the park attractions, which can be found at www.wdwautism.com in the planning section. While this pre-printed page was helpful, it was still one more thing that we had to bring with us into the park.
One night as we were getting ready for a father/son trip to Walt Disney World, I had an epiphany (when I told my wife Rachel, her first response was “did it hurt?”). I have an iPhone that I was use, and Josh has an iTouch device, which we were bringing with us on our trip. I asked myself “how can I use these devices to help Josh communicate with me?” The answer “let Josh show me using pictures on his iTouch”.
I went through the www.wdwautism.com picture gallery (http://www.wdwautism.com/image), and took an image from each attraction for the parks we wanted to visit. From there I created an image gallery for each of the parks. Before we got to the park, Josh and I spent some time looking at the different attraction images and practiced saying their name. This helped with both his verbal skills, and it allowed him to get familiar with the images.
While we were at the park we started to go to his favorite rides at Magic Kingdom. Then we got to a point where he was getting frustrated because I couldn’t really understand what he wanted to do next. It was time for the picture gallery! As I started to scroll through the rides I thought he wanted to do, he grabbed the iPhone to help speed things up (apparently I was just too slow!). He quickly scrolled through the rides and stopped at Splash Mountain. I said “Splash Mountain” and then he followed by repeating “Splash Mountain”. Our frustration soon started to fade, as I was finally able to understand what he wanted to do.
There was another time when it was helpful. We were at Epcot and I thought he would want to go on Maelstrom (one of our family favorite attractions at World Showcase). I told him where we were going, and right away he said “no, Maelstrom”. Since I’m not always too smart, I once again started to list names of rides he might want to do. Finally, I gave him the picture gallery and he scrolled right to Grand Fiesta. So we went right there and afterward he was ready for Maelstrom. How could I forget we have to do Grand Fiesta first then Maelstrom? Proper order is always important to him.
To help others work with their travel companions, where communication might be a problem, I created folders of the images that I used. They are compressed to help with the download time and can be found in the at the Image Gallery and Smart Phones/itouch page (http://www.wdwautism.com/image-galleries-and-smart-phonesitouches ) at our website (www.wdwautism.com). To best use these image galleries, spent time familiarizing your child or travel companion with the picture, so when you are at the park you will know how to use them. If your child has not been to any of the parks, I would spend time with both the image gallery and also with the Disney Vacation planning video (https://www.disneyvacations.com/dv/en_US/VacationPlanningDVD/index?sourcecode=11856&referrer=wdw&hdrType=default&vcnType=wdw&bhcp=1) to familiarize them to both the attractions and images. You could also use the compressed images on your phone or other electronic device to help them understand which ride you are going on next.
It is really not much, but it can help release some frustration on both parts. If you do not have a smart phone, the picture chart is just as helpful (http://www.wdwautism.com/node/1308). You can laminate it to make it more durable. It is also in a power point format so you can change the images around to suit your family. These are just some tools you can use to make the trip a magical vacation for everyone. After all, the point to going to Walt Disney World is so everyone can feel the magic.
Contributed by: Ray (NDD #102). Ray is the DDL’s expert on Autism and Walt Disney World vacations.