Autism in the Parks: Pixie Dust is Real!
I was reflecting the other day, about an event that happened years ago as a young mom. Shopping with children was not my idea of a relaxing Saturday activity. However, it was a week before school started and like most moms, I dragged my kids out to stock up on everything from socks and underwear to jeans and school supplies. I’ve always wondered what happened to the all those things they were using only months earlier when school ended. The summer monster must devour them, because by August every child is in need of everything! It was a busy morning in the discount store as I escort my three children past the discounted swimwear to the polo shirts. That’s when the employee in her mid-fifties caught my eye. I remembered her from the last time I had shopped there. Someone in that store must have given her the job of child natzy. Something about her reminded me of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Sure enough, as soon as my 5 year old son slipped under the circular clothing rack to play pick-a-boo with mom, she called out, “No kids, beneath or under the racks.” The demands continued, “Stay by your mom,” and “You can only touch the toys, if you’re buying one.” This fun continued until I snagged my three and headed for the exit.
Needless to say, I seldom, if ever, shopped at that store again. Years later, after our autistic children were born, I avoided most retail stores completely. I was in no way going to submit myself to disapproving glances of another behavior queen. When online shopping became a thing, I was thrilled with the idea. Let’s face it, customer service training falls a little short when it comes to coaching retail employees about how to deal with children in their stores, let alone special needs kids.
In contrast, themes parks have figured this one out. Now, before everyone shoots me down with their “rude or unresponsive park host or ride operator” story, let’s look at some shining examples!
And, we don’t have to look very far. Just last month the story posted by a mother on Facebook went viral. Jennifer Whelchel, a ride operator at Islands of Adventure in Florida responded perfectly, when Ralph, a 9 year old with autism, melted down when the ride he was waiting for closed minutes before he could ride it. Ralph had waited all day for his chance to ride Spiderman. Patience is a difficult thing for many children on the spectrum. As the family neared boarding, the announcement came that the ride had malfunctioned. For Ralph, nothing could repair this moment. According to his mother, Lenore Koppelman, Ralph dropped to the floor and began, “sobbing, screaming, rocking, hyperventilating and truly struggling to breathe.” That’s when Jennifer went into action. Mom described, “She got down on the floor WITH HIM,” Koppelman wrote. “She rested next to him while he cried his heart out, and she helped him breathe again. She spoke to him so calmly, and while he screamed and sobbed, she gently kept encouraging him to let it all out.” Jen directed other guests to move around them, as she waited for Ralph to calm. As the scene came to an end, Jennifer made a quick phone call, then invited the Ralph to pick out a special gift, under $50, from the gift shop nearby. As a follow up, a Universal representative later offered to provide free tickets to return to the park next time the family, who live in New York, is in town.
Before we give all the applause to theme park management on this one, let’s just say that Jennifer Whelchel is a pretty impressive lady. Nick named “Mama Jen” by her colleagues, this lady went above and beyond. However, there is something to be said for the travel and tourism industry that encourages such behavior. Facebook lights up when airline hostess, calm crying babies, or hotel clerks go out of the way for a family whose vacation has taken a wrong turn. And good press is worth training employees to respond whenever there is a need.
Here is an example from our own family’s experience. Our autistic children hate fireworks. For most families the “Happily Ever After” finale is the cherry on top of a magical day at Walt Disney World. For ours it creates a mad dash to the exit, story here. On one occasion, we had been delayed getting off a ride in Tomorrowland and there was no beating the explosion and inevitable meltdown that was going to occur. Looking for an indoor location that was still open, we raced for a gift shop nearby, where the cast member was just about to close and lock the doors. We explained and he let us inside. Our daughter, Rose, was hysterical. Kneeling beside her, I held her ears and we waited for the final “kaboom”. Finally, the music concluded, and it was time to leave the shop. That was when a very cleaver cast member approached us from the back of the shop. He explained that “Tinkerbell was very sorry that she hadn’t been able to watch her fly through the night, so she sent an exact replica of her magical wand for Rose to take home.” Wow! There really is pixie dust in that place! The tears vanished. The wand lit up, and our little family exited feeling kind of special, instead of overwhelmed.
Our son, Andy, is a magnet for magical moments. He just stands out in the crowd. Sometimes that spells trouble but other times is makes for some really sweet moments with the cast members at the Disney Parks. Just last night we had one of those experiences. Andy, the guy who hates fireworks, loves Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I know, it doesn’t make sense. Andy, the guy who has to choose his seat, almost always picks the first or the last row on the extreme right or left of any seating area. So, while all the other guests are filing neatly in lines into the center of the theater for Fantasmic, we are seated, all by ourselves (for a while) on the far left of the audience area. And did I mention that Andy was wearing his winter parka in 90 degree weather. This is a new thing for him. He just can’t say goodbye to winter, which is understandable because in Florida, we aren’t sure if we had one this year.
As Andy was gazing into the water while leaning over the rail, we were approached by Alex, a Disney Cast member. He explained that we would have a much better view if we quickly scooted down the row to the center of the theater that was still being loaded. Andy was not interested! I then explained that Andy has autism and this was one of his favorite places to sit. That was when Alex went into full customer service mode. “That’s fine,” He said, “of course, you can sit here.” Then looking at my son, he said, “So can I bring you something, maybe some popcorn or a soda. Which do you like best.” Andy chose popcorn. Within about ten minutes Alex returned with two boxes of popcorn. He got a big, “Thank you!” from Andy. I had to chuckle when a few minutes later, as Andy was popping a handful of popcorn into his mouth, he said, “This is soooyummy!” (Perfectly quoted form the movie “Enchanted”)
These three stories have one thing in common. The employee gifted the child with something. I think it is important to note that kindness doesn’t have to come with presents. Indeed, my kids have been greeted and encouraged and applauded by cast members so many times that I have lost track. Just last night, Andy, decided to dance like Duke of Weselton while visiting Olaf, which was hilarious! The photographer and character helper cheered him on. Truly, goodness can be found in many places. Three cheers for the theme parks, who have encouraged their employees to reach out. At the end of the day, the pixie dust is really just people being kind and friendly. We would do well to sprinkle ourselves with a little every morning and make our own magic worlds a little brighter for those we encounter!