A common misconception is that children on the Autism Spectrum cannot enjoy theme parks. Many people have pointed out that theme parks are sensory overload central, which seems like the recipe for the perfect storm right? And to be honest, there are times where it can be, feel free to read all about our recent Disney World nightmare here. Despite this hiccup and many others like it, we still deeply enjoy experiencing theme parks with Roo.
The mission of Tribe on a Quest is to show families that with the right accommodations & planning, travel, including theme park visits can still be a realistic and enjoyable option.
If you are thinking about taking a child on the Autism Spectrum to a theme park the following tips are for you!
*I am not expert in autism, all these tips are reflective of our experiences, and your experiences may vary.
Let Your Child Plan parts of the Trip.
As with any trip, planning is KEY, but planning is a critical component of traveling with an ASD child. Our easiest day in the theme parks took place on Roo’s Birthday and that is because she was totally in the driver seat of her day, and knew exactly what to expect. I took the time to pre-plan for the trip, checking height requirements of each ride to avoid meltdowns at the park, and crossing out any rides that knew would be triggering for her. Next, we spent weeks leading up the Disneyland trip watching YouTube videos of rides in each of the lands. This allowed her to get the first-hand perspective on what the ride did and if there were any dark, scary, or startling parts of the ride. From there we created a list with the help of a planning app to put them in the order that she wanted to ride them. We put the rides she wanted to ride the most at the top of the list and went from there in case we ran out of time there would be less chance of a meltdown. I followed this process up with inserting all meal and snack breaks because they are vital.
Bring Essentials Items into the Park.
Does your child have a favorite toy/lovey/blanket? Bring it! Does your child have sensory sensitivities like Roo? Bring their noise canceling headphones every.single.day, regardless of if they were okay with noise on previous trips or even previous days. Theme parks are undeniably loud, I am convinced they make music loud to fully immerse you in the experience, but for an ASD child this can be too much to deal with. Roo likes to wear her headphones into the park and then decide throughout the day if she is comfortable with the sound levels. Surprisingly she doesn’t even flinch at fireworks, but the sounds of a ride can trigger a meltdown (go figure…).
Download their favorite apps because there will inevitably some form of waiting, whether it is for a ride or a show. We love the game “Heads Up” in line, it kept her distracted, and it was fun for the whole family. If you are going to the theme parks when it is sunny bring sunglasses. It is already hot outside, but having to contend with the sun beating down on your body and also affecting your vision can be an assault on the senses. Bring a good pair of sunglasses that they have worn before. Wearing previously used sunglasses can avoid wearing something that may be uncomfortable or press too hard on the sides of their head or bridge of their nose.
Bring a misting bottle or fan for hot days. This can be a lifesaver for the entire family and can help with your ASD child getting overheated. Also, don’t forget to try and stick to your meal breaks, and also have snacks on hand and drink lots of water!
Even the best-laid plans can be disrupted by ASD forces (meltdowns) other external forces (weather, rides breaking down, etc.), so it’s best to have a backup plan and even plan for extra days if possible. Maybe your child really wants to ride the Ariel Under the Sea Adventure ride 5 times in a row, but at turn 3 the ride is down for maintenance *insert screaming emoji* If you have a backup plan in place you can quickly distract your child with the idea of riding the next ride on their list, watching a show/parade or visiting another day. Depending on your budget try to spread your visit over multiple days. This will allow you to take frequent breaks from the sensory overload which is needed not just for your child, but also for yourself.
Keep Track of your Child.
As a family, we coordinate clothing every day that we are in theme parks. Primarily, because I get joy from it, but also because it will make it easier to spot Roo in a crowd if she wanders off. She tends to be hyperfocused on things like parades or characters, combine that with the crowds of a busy day and she can easily lose track of us. One of the easiest ways to avoid this happening too often is to bring/rent a stroller for the parks. It avoids fatigue from all of the walking, but it is easier to keep track of her. If you have a child who is a runner or has limited communication using temporary tattoos with your contact info on them (covered with liquid bandage) so that you can be reunited quickly.
Always Request Accommodations
While planning your trip, research your specific park’s disability accommodations for autism and what is required to access services. We have found that theme parks that have accommodations for autism simply require you to state that your child has a disability that affects their experience. Typically, the representative will ask how their disability affects their experience and this is when you explain all the ways they may be affected. I have been told that they never ask for paperwork, but I always bring some form of medical documentation just in case. For the first 2 years visiting theme parks with Roo it never even occurred to me to research disability accommodations, and as a result, we had a very difficult time.