Autism in the Parks: Sensory Issues

Check out companion story, “The Race for the Exit”

For parents of autistic children, probably one of the first indicators of a developmental challenge in their children, is how their toddler is responding to sensory effects in their environment. When our daughter was around 2 years old, I noticed one day while waiting for our order at McDonald’s that she was licking the edge of the counter top. I cringed a little and picked her up. Around that same time, while changing her diaper, I realized as I chatted with her, as I always did with my little ones, she was not looking at me. In fact, she seemed to be doing everything that she could to not look directly at me. This was very early on, before autism became a big conversation in the media. I was pretty stumped by the subtle changes that had occurred over the course of a couple months. My baby that had always waved goodbye to daddy at the door, suddenly would not. 

Walt Disney World was a huge part of our lives during that time. Rose went along and seemed to enjoy herself. However, what she enjoyed seemed to change as well. Louder and darker rides became a problem. Fireworks caused complete hysteria. And sometimes she would manage to slip away from my constant care, only to be found laying on the floor somewhere, staring at the ceiling, as I described in a previous article.

As I approach the subject of how to assist your child at the Disney Parks with sensory issues, I recognized that our family’s situation is different from most. Generally, avid fans might visit a theme park, at most, a couple times a year. But, for most families, Disney vacations occur once in several years and maybe just one time in the lifetime of their children. I believe that my kiddos developed an acceptance for this busy, noisy place, due to a continual amount of exposure. So, I reached out to some fellow autism moms for some advice. The following is a mixture of their thoughts, along with my own. In order to protect their identity, I have not used their names in the article, but thanks ladies! You had some great ideas.

The new Galaxy’s Edge, at Disneyland, has unexpected noises created by kids using the Play app. Check out a cool video tour form our resent visit here.
Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Timing is Everything

Most of the moms agreed. Don’t plan on staying from dawn to dusk, at a Disney Theme Park. Obviously, that is a difficult thing, since you’re paying a small fortune to be in the park. The temptation is to spend every waking moment. Additionally, it is challenge if you have other typical developing children who want to do it all. Creating a strategy that will work for your family is important. Bringing along helpers is a must if you have some kids that crave the park and others that tolerate it in small doses. Starting early, leaving mid day, and returning is a great way to beat the heat, and enjoy the hotel pool and a nap. One mom noted that over the years they have been able to increase their time in the park. On their last trip they did 14 hours straight! Wow! That makes me want to take a nap just thinking about it!

Playtime at the pool in Disney’s Art of Animation Resort.
Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Increase Your Length of Stay

So, if you aren’t up to a marathon day of Disney, maybe look into a four or five day pass. I remember how much more we enjoyed Walt Disney World when we managed to afford annual passes. If you have one day to play, its really hard to walk away when your autistic child seems to be doing great. However, the “leaving while they are wanting more” applies here. If you can afford the multi-day pass, its much easier to pace yourselves.

Choose and Title to Your Advantage

One year, we drove from Tucson, Arizona, (where we were living at the time), to Los Angeles for a quick weekend trip. When we arrived, we took our only child at the time, who is typical developing, on “Snow White Scary Adventures”. She was young and that witch was so scary!! The rest of the day was a wash. She would not go on any other attraction that she couldn’t see clearly from the queue, like Dumbo and the Carrousel. We were one disappointed young couple. So do some research. If your child will not go to a movie theater, you can just take Mickey’s PhilarMagic, Bug’s Life, and Voyage of the Little Mermaid off your list. On the other hand, if your child craves the swing set on the playground or loves the swish of throwing him into the swimming pool, then Soaring is the perfect fit.

Millennium Falcon, Smugglers Run is an simulator ride that can be seen more intense depending on how good your pilots are. More detail about Galaxy Edge can be found here.
Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Youtube is your best friend. Andy was afraid of just about every attraction for years. Prior to introducing him to a new attractions, we have him watch videos of what it’s like. We also try to describe it in terms that he understands. Prior to our first Disney Cruise, Andy was adamant that he was not going on a big boat. We were pretty concerned and purchased insurance, in hopes that if getting on the boat was an epic fail, we might be able to recoup our costs. That’s when we renamed the Disney Cruise Line, “HotelBoat”. He had stayed in a hotel and sailed on a small boat, so the two combined didn’t seem so overwhelming. We embarked without an episode and it was awesome! (Article coming on managing a cruise at a later date.) We have also titled rides by what happens there. For example, Kali River Rapids at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is called, “Splash”.

Our son, embracing the bubble gun on board the ship. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Enjoy the Pre-show, Skip the Ride

Muppets 3D is a theater show. Andy, hated theaters of any kind. It has only been the past three years that our family managed to attended a movie together. However, Andy loved the pre-show, which is shown on television monitors. One of us would watch the pre-show with the family, sometimes twice, while the rest went on to do the full attraction. Dinosaur at Disney’s Animal Kingdom was the same. The pre-show is fantastic and just what Andy needed until he was ready to do the real thing. Of course, all of the rollercoaster type rides have a “baby swap” option, so if you can get your kiddo to wait around, you can have another responsible adult ride then watch your child, while you get a chance.

Dinosaur, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Baby Care Centers

Every park has a little space tucked away in a corner that is dedicated to nursing moms and resting babies, called Baby Care Centers. If your kiddo is still young, this can be a great hangout. Even if you are only there for 10-15 mins, the break might allow him to decompress. The autism mom that volunteered this idea, said that she had brought her 2 1/2 year old here and excluding one occasion when the child was deemed “not a baby”, her son was allowed to stay for a short time.

Bathroom troubles

My favorite idea came from a mom whose child hates the sound of a toilet flushing. Maybe this is an idea that has been well communicated through the autism groups, but since mine are older, it’s new to me. She brings a pad of sticky notes. Before her child uses the toilet she sticks the post it note over the motion sensor. Now there are no surprises, while her kiddo is doing his business.

Once while entering the restroom at Disney I saw a mom that had placed a little portable potty on top of the changing table. Pretty smart if its small enough to carry and your kiddo is potty training. However, if your autistic child is like mine, he was much older when we took on toilet training.

Stroller Heaven

Strollers are such a blessing for creating a comfortable space away from the crowd for our kids. If your child likes his stroller, don’t leave it home. The park strollers are not nearly as comfortable. The familiarity of his own space might be the greatest defense agains sensory struggles. Check out the article about strollers if you missed it a few weeks ago.

If you unfamiliar with the red sticker, check out our stroller article here.


Bring your own food. There is of course, every type of food imaginable but for our kids, they might hate it all. Something familiar is a must in a place that is very unfamiliar. And keep those tummies full. I find that my kids manage sensory overload pretty well when they are not hungry or tired. Combine sensory issues with fatigue and hunger and we are headed for a major meltdown. Information about mobile ordering here.

Just Chill for a While

Here is a great list from an experienced mom of where to wind down the little ones. Try the “hub green spaces in front of the castle at Magic Kingdom or Mickeys Toontown at Disneyland Park, the splash pad at Epcot or the Seas pavilion, the Boneyard at Animal Kingdom or the playground at California Adventure.” Nice list! I would jot those down on my iPhone and pull out the list when its time to take a break. If its crazy hot, you might try the indoor list that I offered in “Expectations, Food, and Fatigue“. A slow movie in an air conditioned building might be a great stop around 2pm in the afternoon.

There are few quiet locations at Disneyland’s new Galaxy’s. Edge. Line up the kiddos on the benches carved out of stone. Look for our Complete Guide tho Galaxy’s Edge here.
Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Don’t let the Fireworks Ruin Your Day

If your child has never worn noise reduction headphones, just pick up a pair on your way out of town. Keep the receipt, just in case you don’t need them. Chances are, if your kiddo is at all sensitive to sound, you will need those headphones at some point. As the day comes to a close, get them ready, because the fireworks almost always send our kids into a panic. After years of struggling with these beautiful but overwhelming displays, we nailed it one evening. Check out our story here.

Sensing the Sensory

I tend to be a little oblivious to what is going on in my autistic kid’s sensory system. Luckily, my high functioning daughter, has learned how to communicate how she is feeling, as well as, what she thinks her brother is experiencing. Being aware of the bright lights of a room, or the annoying sound of a baby crying in a theater, or repugnant smell of the deodorizer in a restroom, is something we autism moms need to develop. It’s like developing an extra sense of what our children are sensing. On occasion, I catch on to the challenge before they react. For the most part, I’m just taking in the sensory and processing it, unaware of their challenge. Until I get the knack of it, I figure following some of the simple work arounds, like we discussed, will help. Disney Parks are filled with great adventures, and with a little effort, our autistic children can enjoy much of what it has to offer.