Traveling with Child on Autism Spectrum

Any tips or experiences to share about taking our son with autism to WDW for the first time? If there is already a three out there you can link me to there. Thanks :slight_smile:

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Welcome @Bennettgibson! I’ll start by tagging @Ellen1976. She just returned home from a nice WDW trip with her son Ben, who is autistic. I’m sure she’ll have some advice. I’ll link her trip report as well.

A few of the Liners who socialize in the Clean Open Thread have children with special needs. You’re welcome to pop over and say hello anytime. They’re all very kind and friendly.

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Link: http://forum.touringplans.com/t/ellen1976-trip-thread-inc-disneybounding-tons-of-character-meals-hopefully-a-talking-black-and-white-cat/9694

My son is on the autism spectrum. He’s pretty high functioning. He dislikes loud and unexpected noises. After a couple of trips, we’ve learned to avoid anything with explosions like LMA. He also doesn’t like most of the 3D movies. Overall though, he does pretty well as long as he knows what to expect.

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Hi @Bennettgibson !

I’m not sure how much use my experiences will be to you because as you know, these special little dudes are all so different :smiley: , but here goes -

Bit of background first - Ben is 6 and has low functioning autism. He does not use any words yet, but is quite sociable and tactile. We just got back from our fourth trip with him.

We have a 9 hour flight to get to Orlando. Ben does not watch television for any length of time, nor is he interested in books, so it’s a challenge. Apps on the iPad are good, as is a bag full of ‘fidget’ type toys. We also let him go to bed much later than usual and get him up early so that he is tired and sleeps a bit on the plane.

I’m no use on the DAS (disability assistance scheme) as I have never used it - hopefully someone else has experience with it.

We always rent a stroller for him - he has not used one at home for years, but we get a Mini GT which is plenty big enough for him, but folds up easily to go on the disney buses, and acts as a safe haven if necessary (as well as saving his little legs obviously!)

We find staying in an apartment works best for us - we have stayed in a 1 bedroom villa at OKW the last 2 trips and Ben was much happier than previous trips where all four of us were in 1 room. If my budget wouldn’t stretch to a villa on Disney property, then I think I would look at staying off property instead rather than going back to 1 room.

We try really hard not let Ben get hungry. We even give him a small bowl of oatmeal before going out to breakfast at WDW, otherwise he is miserable and so are we by the time breakfast comes. We keep a bag of snacks and drinks with us at all times. This probably applies to a lot of children, but Ben’s meltdowns are worse if I fail to do this!

We are not too wedded to THE PLAN. Things happen all the time (with us it’s usually Ben needing to eat RIGHT NOW) to throw us off course - it’s much easier to get back on track if I’m not in tears over the plan being ruined.

We introduce Ben to rides very gradually each trip as we are not sure how much he remembers. We found in the past (to my great sadness) that if we go straight on the more wild rides that he gets freaked out (despite liking them the previous year) and doesn’t want to go on any rides at all. This year we did lots of Dumbo, Peter Pan, and Pooh before graduating to 7 dwarfs mine train.

Ben is not keen on loud noises, but won’t wear headphones - he just takes them off. We have had some success last year watching fireworks from the Wishes Dessert Party - a bit of a calmer place to watch than Main Street say.

We always go for the more casual noisy restaurants - I just feel more comfortable and relaxed then and am more able to cope if Ben is being tricksy. Ben’s favourites are 'Ohanas and Kona at the Poly, and Olivia’s at OKW.

I think Ben’s favourites things this trip were - the resort boat launches, his light up Mickey balloon, the buses, pancakes for breakfast, and swimming. Not what I expected perhaps, but all good, he was happy most of the time and the rest of us were able to enjoy the rides etc - don’t forget it’s your vacation too!

I hope some of this at least is helpful, and if not, maybe it will be to someone else :smiley:

If you have any specific questions just throw them out there, and if I can’t help I’m sure somebody else can.

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No personal experience with touring with a child with Autism, but here are a couple of things to be aware of:

Know how Disney’s Disability Program and DAS cards work. Here is a good intro: http://blog.touringplans.com/2013/10/02/details-walt-disney-worlds-new-accessibility-program-replacing-guest-assistance-cards/

AllEars.net has a lot of useful information http://allears.net/pl/dis_aut.htm. Note, however, that some of this information is dated - for example, they discuss the old Guest Assistance Cards and not the new DAS.

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I second Ellen on so many points.
My boys(3&5) are a little different - I have two on the spectrum but both mild, verbal… and rigid, and socially inappropriate. We didn’t get the DAS because we went armed with a good plan and FPPs: start by rope drop, have generally plan (and a formal personalized TP which we sometimes follow for up to 2 hours) for which direction to “guide” ourselves in (for us: pass Buzz or not? because if we pass Buzz we WILL have to ride 5x in a row…), and finish early and return to the hotel for a rest. If kids in the mood, we’ll return later in the day. Our best plan, same for kids with and without autism (by without, I mean, when they had autism but weren’t diagnosed yet, lol):

  1. Start early
  2. Have a TP which you may or may not follow
  3. Have a stroller to be a safe haven
  4. Know where your local “safe havens” are (quiet corners) if you need to withdraw and lower the intensity
  5. Stage a strategic retreat to hotel after a few hours if needed. (We do this pre-emptively)
    My kids will not go on anything perceived as fast or high - no Dumbo, no Barnstormer, no 7DMT, and for the little one, no Winnie the Pooh or Buzz. Freaks them right out, I do not know why. So we pretty much stick with IASW, ETwB, UTS, JC, Swiss Family Treehouse to start, then consider more exciting ventures, slowly. :wink: I haven’t taken them on Pirates or Splash yet, and the poorly-considered Haunted Mansion included a jacket over the little guys head while I rocked him and showed him videos on my iPhone for the duration (under the jacket, lol). Oops.
    Happy planning!
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How old is your son @Bennettgibson?

I don’t have any firsthand experience here, but did listen to a recent WDW Podcast that touched on this subject. Hopefully, in addition to fellow Liners you may find some additional support from these other communities.

Here’s a link to the podcast (that touched on a wide variety of “special needs”): http://www.wdwradio.com/2014/11/show-384-10-things-need-know-traveling-walt-disney-world-special-needs/

And here’s the website created by the guest on that podcast, who is the mother of a child diagnosed with autism: http://specialmouse.com/

Hope this helps!

My son has been diagnosed with “traits of spectrum” along with ADHD inattentive, anxiety and depression. The suggestions here are all great. I’ll add a few more that may be helpful just to round out the list.

We have to avoid getting too caught up in big crowds. That means, fireworks in front of the castle are out. If he can handle the noise and you want to see the show with the castle in the background, stick near the front of main street where they still have the lights on. It is not as congested there and you can escape quickly. Also avoid other times of high congestion like parades. Being surrounded by people like that sends my son into a tail spin.

I am not sure where you are staying or what transportation you are using but if you are relying on Disney transportation, try to plan the best you can around less crowded times for that too. I prefer to have a car.

Finally, much to my dislike, shows are frequently not our friends. When I do try shows, I sit near an exit and if allowed, bring food. Snacks help.

One wonderful thing about Disney is there is so much to do. I have a lot of good memories of all of my kids just exploring. Go with that, even if they you are only watching the ducks swim.

Best wishes for a great trip.

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I know you asked for tips, but I wanted to share our trip so you could see how/how not we used some of the tips. Maybe it will help you “see” what will help with your planning and trip.

Background: DS7 (almost 8) is high and low functioning. He talks a mile a minute, but on a 5 year old level. Can’t write his name or read, but can drive a tractor (and my car if I don’t hide the keys). He has ADHD packed into his mixed bag too, so that carries over into social behavior issues. He is sensory avoiding and wears headphones in most public places. We’ve been dealing with this since he was 4, so we see/avoid/plan for as many triggers and for the most part get thru the days pretty well. This week has been rough as we are out of the school routine (Thanks Mother Nature).

Last April was his first visit to WDW, and I planned and planned and planned and researched and researched and researched. I knew we were going during a very busy time (9s & 10s), and was scared to death it was going to be money down the drain. It wasn’t!!! He had a blast and we are returning in May.

As much planning as I did, I could not talk my DH into toting the umbrella stroller. BIG HUGE MISTAKE. He ended up buying one from DW in DTD for something like $50 on our first day (I took some time to say I told you so!) TAKE/RENT THE STROLLER!!!

I can’t express the importance of AM EMH and RD. A near empty park on 9 & 10 days makes lines sooo much easier for those of us that don’t have the patience for them (and that includes me). Walk ons were common most mornings for the rides we were attempting.

Attractions: DS is fearless, but sensory triggers had us avoiding and only riding one time a few times. He tried everything we asked him to, and when the ride was over we asked if he wanted to do it again.
Hits: Dumbo, Astro Orbiter, Tea Cups, Peoplemover, Speedway, Buzz, Magic Carpets, Tricera Top Spin and the train
Misses: Most shows, 3-d movies and everything as HS.
We skipped Epcot for numerous reasons, but nothing to do with DS.
We avoided big rides as we didn’t feel he was quite ready and wanted to introduce him slowly and not damage his memory of the most wonderful place on earth.
Do you see the theme here? If it was moving he was on it. If he had to sit still, he wasn’t having fun. HS just didn’t have what he needed and we are skipping it this trip and adding Epcot.

Characters: This was so dependent on his mood, hunger scale, time of day, etc. We did CM for breakfast on our first park day. We requested a table in the corner so he could sit against the wall and see what was going on. Staff was great with this request and we were seated quickly. Mickey was 1st and although he loved watching him on TV and vids, I think the fact that he was real and BIG gave DS caution. He got autographs and photos, but you could tell he was apprehensive. By the time Pluto came around I thought we were done, but DS took to him like no other. Pet his nose, ears and Pluto showed him his tail. It was worth waiting for. From then on, DS was more comfortable with the characters that he recognized. We did a lot of M&Gs at HS because he knew the Pixar movies better. Merida was by far the best M&G. She mimicked DSs actions and engaged him so well. I was near tears when we had to move on from her (wanted to bring her home). He made sure he touched each of the princesses dresses at our Castle lunch (a tactile thing) but didn’t really care to be there. We were with another family with girls or we would have skipped this. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not planning to do it again. Over all, our experience with the characters went well, but he does not talk about them now, so it’s a skip for the most part on our next trip. A few TSs in the plan, but not must dos.

The DAS - we got it and used it exactly 3 times over 5 days. With FPP, TP AM EMH and RD, we just didn’t really need it. We used when lines were over 30 minutes AND there was something close by to distract attention to waiting for that ride. Magic Carpets has the Treehouse. Dumbo has the circus water park thingy. I’m sure there are others, but those are the 2 rides we used the DAS. We figured out DS’s waiting threshold was around 20 minutes and could manage most lines that were that or shorter. You can get a wheelchair tag for your stroller, but this doesn’t get you “front of the line” privileges. If your goal is to avoid standing in a confined space, use the DAS. It will take 10 minutes off the standby line posted time and you return and go through the FPP line. There may still be a wait in the FPP line, but it’s obviously shorter.

Breaks: We didn’t take any leave the park and return breaks. DS is hyper, so getting him to rest is like trying to melt butter in all this snow in my yard. He has to collapse each night at home, so we went against all the good advice here to take midday breaks. It worked for us. No we didn’t get to see MK at night, but that’s was ok. We’ll get that chance later when he’s older. We were in the parks from 7am (EMH) or RD to around 3pm. Headed back and hit the pool until dinner. He was in bed and asleep no later than 9 each night. It worked for us.

Fireworks and parades: He has never liked fireworks at home, and that standing around thing just doesn’t work for him. Parades didn’t happen either for the same reason. So no advice there and not in the plans for May.

Food: He eats like a linebacker and doesn’t have any allergies, so we didn’t have issues. Pizza was his favorite. Only advice here is to find a table first, have a distraction handy with another adult and then go get food. I think this is a pretty good plan for anyone with kids though.

Iphone the savior: We had an old one with no plan that I preloaded with pics and vids for the plane ride and then each night at the hotel I loaded it with the day’s snapshots. This entertained him when we were on buses, waiting on rides/transpo/tables/food etc.

The unknown: We did not RD AK and about 2 hours in, before we used our FPPs) we had a major downpour, and it washed us out even with ponchos. Wet feet on anyone, let alone a sensory kid, is not fun. We turned it into a hotel arcade day. He loved playing the games. Hit the pool when everything cleared up.

Overall it was an amazing trip with very few meltdowns. My best advice is: You know your kid’s triggers. Do what you can to introduce new things slowly and avoid them if necessary. There will be other opportunities to try again.

Planning for our upcoming trip: YouTube videos have been a great tool. I went through and found all the rides that I knew he liked and ones that I want him to try this trip. He has only said “no” to one so far, so it’s off the TP. He watches them daily as a reward and knows we are going in May. I also took KTP maps, photoshopped some icon photos into them and printed them out so he can “study” them with his vids. He’s learning that Dumbo is in MK and not in AK and things like that. This is his way of helping me plan and so far so good.

In summary, get a stroller, get the DAC and use it if you need it. Watch for smiles as they say more than our kids’ sometimes can. Have a plan, but know it can change. Go slow and ENJOY!!!

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This is all great advice. My son is SPD, sensory avoidance, and so here are my thoughts:
We did RD every morning’ stayed through a late lunch (2ish) and then left the park. We did not return in the evening, it was just too much sensory overload. So we foud other evening activities to do: watching the fireworks from the safe and quieter distance at the Poly beach, character meals, swiming in the pool. We also had fun ordering in room service two nights and watching the many disney movies they have on repeat on the TV.
We had great luck at the neverland and simbas clubhouse kids clubs. I told them in advance about our issues, and in the case of the neverland club they deliberately scheduled a youg lady who had experioence with soecial needs kids. My son still talks about this cast member 3 years later. And it gave me a few hours to go ride all the rides he couldn’t do. Extra disney magic!
Call the guest assistance line, 3 years ago they put me through to someone who could talk to me about all the sensory experiences on all the rides (i had not been to WDW in years myself and couldn’t remember everything) and that was very helpful.
We suspended all eating rules and carried and allowed lots of snacks. Nothing kills a disney vacation faster than an older child having a sensory meltdown. So we ate way more ice cream and fruit snacks than was good for us but i think it helped keep everyone happy.
We found AK to be the best park for our issues. Plenty to do, and you can always slow things down by walking the animal trails or talking to the zoologists. We spend most our last day there every time to help with the transition back to real life.
Good luck!

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Hi! My son (16) is high functioning autism. We have not used DAS because we haven’t needed it.

For us -

Key ingredient is flexibility. I plan as though we are going to always always follow the plan. But I am well aware that we won’t. Sam’s biggest issue in park is a need to retreat from the noise and activity - we do a LOT of TS meals in park. And we make use of underutilized attractions and shows also.

He “fidgets”- uses his hands aNd makes peculiar noises - it is a stim behavior we have worked on for years and unfortunately it hasn’t gone away. I keep a stash in my bag of the rubber bracelets, light saber key chains, squishy stress balls, etcetera to
give him something that isn’t disruptive to stim on. It helps him find his balance when he needs it.

We take breaks because he loves to swim and for Sam it is kind of a reset button.

If there is a dessert party option for fireworks I book that puppy- the noise is not a problem
But all those people - it can be horrible
For him. That is better now than it once was, but I don’t like to chance it. Meltdowns were easier when he was 6 than they are now at 16.

I’m happy to help if you think of any questions I could answer - I just can’t think o

f all the strategies off the top of my head. We employ a lot of them.

Good luck!

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Like others have said, it really depends on your child. Noah loves fireworks and evening parades now, but we had to skip all the fireworks on our first two trips. The big thing now is 3-D movies. He’ll tolerate Muppets, but that’s it. We also try to make sure that he doesn’t get too hungry and try to swim everyday. (He loves water.) We’ve never used the DAS since we were able to use FP effectively in the past. He’s had to get used to waiting more with FP+, but has done okay with it.

My DD11 is low functioning. Our touring style is slow & flexible and I make sure to include things that she enjoys. We really have no hard and fast plans.

Mr.Potato Head has a great thread with some awesome info for disabilities. Guest With Disabilities

One of the resources on that thread has social stories. Another has a guide that lists each ride and what kind of special effects & ride conditions there are during it (dark, loud noises, rough ride, etc) so that you know which rides may have triggers for your child so you can either avoid them or at least be prepared during the ride.

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My DS is on the spectrum & this year will be our 6th trip to Disney. He’s 3 so we’re still learning what works. I also have a DD6 that’s neuro-typical.

We get the DAS card & use it at times. What is a lifesaver for us is getting the sticker to put on our stroller that allows us to use it as a wheelchair. We have a city mini that has a long visor so he can “hide” in there at times when he wants to be alone. We can roll it in everywhere with that sticker. CMs try to stop us at times but once they see the sticker they let us through.

There’s an AWESOME podcast called The Special Mouse. The host is a nurse that has a child on the spectrum. She has a really good episode (I think episode 20?) where she covers the language needed to get re-adds if you have a child that is a repeat rider. She covers so many topics. I highly recommend it.

My kiddos are very particular when it comes to food so I research restaurants a lot!! I make a list of where I can find the foods they like in each park. They don’t eat chicken nuggets or Disney pizza so we usually order adult entrees and split it. My son drinks almond milk & I order that from WeGoShop along with his juice & other snacks.

I’ve learned that some days we will have plenty of hours in a park & some days not so much. On those days we enjoy the resort and all the activities that are offered there.

Good luck. & you guys are going to have a blast!!

I don’t have experience with Autism but knowing that sensory processing and ADD can overlap with Autism, I can give what helped us with high functioning children in that spectrum.

  • Going up to the cast member of any ride and asking about specific fears/motions/etc that you know will be bothersome or fearful to the child. I have been pleasantly surprised at the helpfulness of these cast members who are completely understanding even when you are asking an earful of questions about something “as simple as” the Seas with Nemo and Friends.
  • We sit at the back for shows near an exit in case it’s just too overwhelming.
  • Depending on the child we bring headphones and earplugs - sometimes they need the noise blocked out to help them relax but will refuse to wear one or the other but usually not both.
    With one typical but very fearful child who may have sensory difficulty, Disney was starting to turn into a train wreck of fear. After a long afternoon break on our second day, we decided the best thing for us to do was to bite the bullet and get the park hoppers. This allowed us to take the child back to the magic kingdom, let her ride the only thing she wanted to ride (the carousel) as many times as she wanted before getting her in at a decent bedtime. Letting her have this time was essential to her getting settled and feeling comfortable and really changed the course of our trip. It also worked out hugely in our favor to have the hoppers so we could spend the morning at magic kingdom and then relax and unwind without being overly stimulated at either Epcot or Animal Kingdom for the evening. Every kid is different, so hopefully, some of what worked for us might work for you.

Our DS-10 is high functioning ASD w/ADD (we also have DS-13 & DD-9 who are “typical” kids).

Our trip this Easter will his 6th. We used the old GAC, and the new DAS this past summer. We just couldn’t get him through a line of more than 20 mins without a meltdown, or some other type of issue. Although we use the crowd calendar, and FP+s to fit our touring plan, don’t do rope drop. (We just can’t get to the park early enough in the morning, and most of our trips have been with the wife’s family – I think we numbered 23, including cousin’s from Italy, in Dec 2013 - Jan 2014 – and they refuse to try RD.)

We used the DAS on our last trip (early Aug 2014) to give him (& his brother & sister) a chance to ride things that either had zero FP+s (e.g. 7D Mine Train), or were a problem with the tiered FP+s (e.g. TSMM, because DS13 wanted to ride RnRCoaster, but we also need to have the Mrs. & I both ride TSMM so neither DS10 nor DD9 would have to ride with a stranger). We worked the DAS ride into our touring by spending the time going to another ride with a shorter line, or doing a scheduled FP+, or getting a snack/meal, or the Mouse’s favorite – going shopping. Now that we are on-file with the DAS, it should be quick to get it renewed when we go in April.

All our kids are picky eaters, so we usually bring lunch, which also saves money. We pack it in a soft sided cooler that fits under the stroller. This will be the first year the double stroller stays at home, but we will bring a single stroller for the long days where we want to bring lunch, and the backpack will be just too heavy for dear old dad to carry all day.

Some families bring iPods or Nintendo DS’s to the parks to help with the waits, but we don’t. If we let DS10 have his, we’ll have to let he brother & sister have theirs, and then they’ll all be spending the day looking at their machines, instead of checking out the magic at the parks.

DS10 has some favorite rides (Splash Mt., River Rapids, Test Track, and many more), and he also loves some of the live shows (The Loin King is his favorite, and he also loves the Beauty and the Beast show). He has a thing about 3D glasses, so he doesn’t want to see the 3D movies, and did TSMM without the glasses for 3 trips (until his brother talked him into trying it by telling him it was “fake” 3D, not real 3D). We always make a point of finishing Animal Kingdom at the Boneyard playground – a good way to wrap up the day. We also have a lot of fun in the World Showcase part of Epcot – all three like the passports & coloring stations in each country, and the Agent P missions. And his highlight at Epcot is shopping in Japan - he is a huge Pokeman fan, and most of his souvenir budget gets spent there. I guess the point is you just never know what part of WDW they’ll like the best.

We drive from Michigan (18 hours on the road, with a overnight in Tenn or Kentucky), so we do have the full assortment of portable DVD players for each kid, plus the DS, ipads, books, etc. (headphone required for dad’s sanity).

Maybe I should have known this but I did not. Pokeman is my son’s new obsession. I will add it to my list for the next trip. Thank you.

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My son loves the Boneyard too. We always plan to spend time at the play areas in all the parks. Having the time to unwind is important to both my kids, but especially my son. We also plan to spend time in the water play areas.