Coping with Spectrum Disorders and Change at the Disney Parks with the new DAS
**By Beth Blancher, M.A.
My first bit of advice is to be cautious of advice from others for your child. Children with a spectrum disorder or other issues with cognitive functioning vary from child to child and family to family. More so, be cautious of others opinions of your child. One of the worst is “my child doesn’t …” Parenting is difficult and parenting a child with a cognitive disability is far more challenging and demanding. If you are reading this it’s evident that you have the desire to help your child and family, celebrate your drive to help and not solely on your successes but willingness to help your child.
Therapists help to teach kids social skills, such as how to greet people, wait for a turn and follow directions. These are crucial life skills. So these basic skills are often a challenge; but, reinforcement day after day helps to improve these skills for many. So often I hear “I don’t want to do therapy on vacation” Let’s try to reframe that for a moment. I don’t see the practice at Disney as work but as a wonderland of opportunity for the potential to help a child grow and learn.
Yes there are challenges but a child is more motivated to change at Disney faced with novel experiences than you will find in a therapeutic setting, classroom or supermarket.
The new DAS system at the Disney parks presents a challenge for spectrum kids and others. Yes we can complain and quit; however you have to choice to turn this into a challenge to help your family grow. The proverb turning lemons into lemonade comes to mind. Until the system is changed we have to work with what we presently have to face. Our other option is to stay home or vacation elsewhere.
The first area I would address is attitude of the family. Yes it will be more challenging but children are perceptive. The old adage if mama ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy rings true. Children can tell if you believe something is not going to work then you have already set yourself up to fail. Leave these “buts” and whining to the forums and blogs but when you are with your family meet this challenge head on. So instead of the defeated “this system is spoiling our fun” turn it into we are motivated and will take this challenge head on. We are developing the life skills that we will bring home as our souvenirs from this trip. Bare with me we are coping remember. I’m just the cheerleader here I can’t change the scoreboard.
Next fatigue is a killer. Make sure to get plenty of rest. How many times do we beat ourselves up before a vacation packing, cleaning, preparing and by the time we arrive at our destination we are exhausted and depleted of both energy and motivation. Rest and diet will help you and your family cope with the challenges ahead.
Planning is more important now than ever. List your family’s favorite rides and create a flexible game plan for your adventure. With the new system set your priorities. With the new My Disney Experience it can be fun to plan for the vacation. Planning can also help your child know what to expect. Schedule Fast Pass ahead of time when possible. Not everyone will have the magic bands at this time but these are in testing and will be part of your planning soon. The new system allows you to pick your time ahead of time. Download the Disney app for your phone and plan. Know what will make a good substitute while you are waiting for your child’s favorite ride. Is that a snack, a parade, shopping or another attraction? Be familiar with the rides that traditionally have minimum wait times.
Before you head out on vacation take an inventory of your child’s special needs. Your child is unique. Know your child’s sensitivities. Is it light, sound or crowds? Does your child crave sensory input? Is your child soothed by music or quiet zones? The more you identify helps with planning with times of visit and types of attractions.
Your spectrum child will be more tolerant when fully rested and satiated – Not only your child but the entire family can handle stress when not fatigued so aim to do the more challenging activities earlier in the day. Does this mean wake up at 6am? If it’s your regular time then yes but if you were up until 3 am during extra magic hours then no. Early is what is early for your family, not regulated by a clock but by readiness.
Have a backup plan for meltdowns and plan to address over or under stimulation. This can be a challenge when you have other children who want to remain in the park. Prepare by learning about the parks, crowds, potential types of stimulation and it helps to have a partner in case you need to divide the party and in order to bring your child to a quieter location. Map these quiet spots ahead of time.
Ok are we ready for a test run? Let’s say we head to the park and your child wants to ride his/her favorite. We head to the DAS kiosk and find the wait time is 35 minutes so they give us a pass to return in 20 minutes. We have several options. Option one could be to try the regular line and ride it twice. Make the line a game. For example, the line for the haunted mansion is filled with entertaining tombs and activities. Set it up as a game or challenge rather than a drudgery. Have items with you ready to distract. I used to use trail mix for mine but you can distract with a snack, phone app, hand held game or load some Disney music on your phone. Count rocks, look at flowers, sing if you have to or talk about the next activity you plan. For those with social stories don’t forget to include the wait time. Use this time to increase or decrease sensitive as needed. Use this time to put in ear plugs or let them spin or clap. Each child is different with different needs and abilities. The down side is that if you withdraw from the line and enter the FP line shortly after you will reinforce the behaviors you want to avoid. Your child then learns that I will get in faster if I am not patient. Draw on the techniques you use when your child has to wait. If you fly to Orlando your child has to wait to load a plane, stay seated at times and endure the flight time. If you travel by car families have strategies to help keep them on the road. Incorporate these techniques. The ability of a Spectrum children falls on a continuum and depending on your child’s ability will depend on your techniques and ability to attempt the line.
There will be families who shouldn’t attempt the line. You will need to try other tactics. Remember Disney will reduce the wait time by 10 or 15 minutes. Use the phone app to watch the wait times. You may want to do this a day in advance to get an idea of your wait times during your visit and remember that wait times may increase on weekends. Early morning visits are rewarded with more tolerance and shorter lines. Remember parks with extra magic hours fill up fast so after a couple of hours you may want to switch parks or if rising later pick a different park. I find the Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are a better choice for the crowded weekends. So distractions while we wait. Stop and review a social story, head to the bathroom first even if your child does not need to go make an excuse to stall. I hate using food but when appropriate snacks work better than trying a meal. Plan this in advance, communicate and add the delay in the social story. We will get close to the Haunted Mansion ask Mickey when we can go then get (insert a snack, bathroom etc) then ride the ride. Talk about the ride; look for clues that you are getting close. This is game time folks get creative for each child and family are different. Carry a favorite item at home or devise a game to help stall. WALK SLOW, go the long way, stop and sing a song from the attraction. Typically when I work with kids I get more animated to help distract them. Look for novel stimulation; look for hidden Mickey’s, or entertaining features. Unfortunately I don’t think another attraction will be the answer unless your child is well coached ahead of time. My approach would be slow and reassuring. Avoid negativity, stay positive and distract, entertain and distract. Avoid complaining and defeatist comments take a deep breath and remain calm. Afterwards celebrate your success.
In the profession we call waiting delay of gratification. Research has shown that delay of gratification is strongly correlated with a positive life outcome. All children learn to delay gratification over time starting in school when we wait our turn. The more we practice the better we become so developing your child’s skill will enhance long term goals and increase independence. Yes, many spectrum kids will never attain independence; but we work to reach a child’s potential.
The new Magic Bands will help with planning when it’s fully implemented. I hope they will eventually incorporate the DAS into the bands allowing families a little more freedom.
At mouse-aid we are named Mouse AID because we think of ourselves as a band-aid for the Disney boo boos or that Lemonade we are motivated to make in situations like these. This article is designed to stimulate your creativity and encourage you to think positive. Know we are here for families and you are welcome to post questions about specific issues or success. No one is saying it’s easy. You have a challenge ahead we are here to offer support, cheer you on and sprinkle a little pixie dust where needed.**