Disney Therapy

Disney Therapy

A few days after Jeff asked me to marry him, and I said, “YES”, he told me he had something important to tell me about himself. He seemed so serious that I kind of braced myself for the worse. Then he said, “I’m really into Disney. It’s kind of a hobby of mine.” I shrugged and told him that I had only been to Disneyland once, and it had been lots of fun. Thirty-five years and six children later, we have experienced easily a thousand trips to a Disney theme park, and I have no regrets.

Disney California Adventure in our younger years.

Walt Disney World has been a wonderful escape from the troubles of daily living, and a safe place to spend with our children. Recently, in a post regarding how to manage meltdowns at the parks, I received comments on several autism Facebook groups from autistic adults members. For many, Disney was a nightmarish experience that they were glad they didn’t have to repeat. Their comments made me consider how the frequent visits to Walt Disney World had affected my autistic children. I have titled this post “Disney Therapy”, but, in no way do I wish to suggest that buying an annual pass takes away the need for ABA, occupational, or speech therapy. Wish it were that easy.

So why would an autistic child have a problem with a Disney theme park? While visiting the parks, our adult daughter Rose, who is high functioning, will often stop us in our tracks and say, “I’m getting overstimulated. I need to take a break.” That really summarizes the problem. Disney is a sensory experience. Think about the sights, sounds, smells that frequent a theme park. It is overwhelming to our special kiddos. When this occurs with our daughter, we look for a quiet corner or in some cases change parks.

Advocating for Yourself

For example, I remember a couple years ago, we had taken the arduous trip into the Magic Kingdom, only to find that the park was jammed with people. We were squeezing through a crowded section of Adventureland, when our daughter said, “I’m over stimulated. I cannot stay here. I want to go to Epcot.” Of course, at that same moment, Andy says, “Jungle Cruise, now!” Two parents, two kids, two parks? We can do this. So our family night turned into to two separate date nights with our children. You might ask how can this be considered some kind of crazy therapy, if you end up leaving?

Light crowd at Adventureland. Not like that on the day we were there.
Photo Credit: Jeff Kober

One of the challenges that Rose had struggled with, was the inability to advocate for herself. In elementary school, our daughter’s teachers expressed concern that she would not ask for help, when she clearly needed it. Additionally, if she was upset, she couldn’t come up with a solution on her own for how to solve the problem. So, consider the experience at the Magic Kingdom that day. Our daughter explained that she couldn’t cope and came up with a solution–Epcot. Important to that experience was the fact that after a little discussion as parents, we decided go with her plan.

Learning to be Flexible

In contrast, Andy, mid-spectrum, has never had trouble advocating for himself. He makes his needs known loud and clear. The problem is that he is very inflexible to anyone else desires or needs. Typically, he will choose three attractions that he wants to visit in a park and has no interest in going on any other rides. I am always thrilled when Disney adds new attractions that incorporate his favorite characters. This has provided many opportunities to practice “first______, and then______”. Basically, we say “first we ride on this attraction for Rose, then we can ride on Frozen, with you.” Of course, this was met with much push back in the beginning, but in time, he got it. Because he loves all things Disney, he was more motivated to try being flexible when we were at a park.

This technique also played out when we were trying to get him to experience a few of the more exhilarating rides. After riding The Great Movie Ride, hundreds of times, I was really pleased when he agreed to a “first Star Tours, then The Great Movie Ride” plan. The result has been a young man that loves roller coasters. The last time we were at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, he said, “First Rockin’ Rollercoaster, then Slinky Dog.” To which I replied “First Rockin’ Rollercoaster, with your dad, and then Slinky Dog!” He has exceeded my tolerance level for exhilarating rides.

“Out There, Living in the Sun”

So, I shared this article with Rose, and asked her how she thought her life had been affected by continual visits to Disney World. Her answer was perfect. She said, “You know, I think it is a little like Quasimodo, from Huntchback of Notre Dam. I couldn’t stay hidden in my tower bedroom forever. You have to just go “out there” and experience the world. Disney World became a practice place for managing the sounds and people in the real world.” Wow! Sometimes your kids just surprise you!

Sensory Overload

Epcot’s Innoventions was a highly sensory experience. It looks very different today.
Photo Credit: Jeff Kober

And of course, those surprising moments, occur anywhere. I am convinced that our children’s gains are due in part because of the time spent at Disney. Let’s consider the affect of the theme parks on their sensory processing issues. I remember a day at Innoventions at EPCOT. Rose, who had not been diagnosed, was about 2 1/2 years old and non-verbal . Somehow we lost track of her. Immediately, everyone scattered, in search of our little Rose. I found her only minutes later, laying on her back on the floor watching the spinning decorations, fans and lights attached to the ceiling. I picked her up and off we went to the next attraction. However, what I had witnessed, I recognized was not typical. She was diagnosed with autism, only months later. I came to understand, that Rose’s behavior was her way of coping with the bright lights and noise in the room. That was not surprising. What has been amazing is what both of our children look like now. They can walk through a noisy, busy, crowd filled Disney shop, without diving for the floor or covering their ears. They can sit in a theater watching animatronic characters, without fear and without noise cancellation headphones. They can even watch the fireworks from outside a building, instead of hovering in a gift shop. But, that has not always been the case.

Rose playing on a computer at Innoventions. She loved that attraction, despite the overload.

Is it Disney Therapy or just Inclusion?

And, it did not happen over night. It happened after years of exposing them to an overstimulating environment weekly, sometimes daily. It happened because we enjoyed being there and they came along. To be clear, our children have always had the choice whether to come along or not. As our Rose grew older she made requests to stay at home instead of facing the overload. We encouraged those decisions. Even today, Andy sets the schedule for Disney trips by posting pictures on his countdown calendar of where he would like to go, sometimes weeks in advance.

It looks like Disney Studios on Saturday and Magic Kingdom on Monday according to Andy’s countdown calendar.

In conclusion, let’s take a look at this thing that I’ve titled Disney Therapy. Now, before you pack your bags and move to Central Florida, or run out and buy an annual pass, let me just say that Disney World worked for us because we had a love for Disney. It was where we enjoyed hanging out. If you feel as though you are hiding with your special kiddo in the tower room, take a leap. Find that special thing that you love and help them connect with the world around it. Inclusion is not just something that happens in a classroom. Our kids need to be at the center of our activities. Let me also add, the meltdowns and frustrations of managing our children in the parks, were not easy, but in the end we feel like it was worth it. However, don’t be surprised if at times, it doesn’t seem worth it. It will require baby steps at first but in the end moving “out there”, can have some big payoffs.