Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth

Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth

Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth

Because we are a Scouting family, I know exactly why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth.  Both of my autistic teens are very involved in Scouts.

I can attest to the amazing progress in my kids that comes with belonging to Scouts BSA.

“Adventure is out there!”

That’s one of my favorite movie quotes from the very cool movie “UP!”  I just love Russell.  He has an infectious enthusiasm for the Scouting way of life.  He is also my husband’s character avatar (who happens to be a BSA troop scoutmaster). No, seriously. My husband looked exactly like Russell when he was a kid.

When my autistic son turned 11, my husband couldn’t wait to introduce him to Scouts.  Camping expeditions, learning knots, campfire cooking, canoe trips, patrol leadership…where else can a young teen do all this and MORE than in Scouts?

Maybe you think…Ok, I get that it’s beneficial for many teen boys and girls.  But why should my autistic child get involved?  Won’t it be another peer-group that will keep my child at arm’s length?

I get it. I had the same fears. Having the social-communication challenges that often come with autism don’t make the road to travel the life stages very easy.

But being involved in Scouts can!  Now that my son is an Eagle Scout, I can share why I believe Scouting is terrific—and actually a better alternative to traditional therapy—for those on the spectrum.

 

Relax in calm settings on Scout outings.

 

The Benefits of Scouts BSA for Those with Autism

Scouts BSA provides that “safe”, natural, inclusive group environment with one’s peers and adult mentors.  In Scouts an autistic youth can develop appropriate skills in social-communication, executive-functioning, confident leadership, self-help, and self-advocacy.

All through FUN ADVENTURES, of course!

In other words, the benefits for a teen with autism to become a Scout are beyond measure!

1. It has a supportive environment for those needing a place to feel included.

No other group-oriented environment provides the same level of long-term, consistent support like Scouts (starting at Kindergarten with Cub Scouts).

Sports and band are only for a few seasons. Church youth groups and high school classes have a single-minded focus.

Therapy environments feel forced and unnatural.  Parents have enough of their plate at home…plus they can’t be their teen’s only role-model if they want him or her to develop independence skills.

A good Scout troop will be…

…Kind and respectful to every person.

Any peer Scout who antagonizes or discourages those on the spectrum would never be tolerated. Ask what protocols have been implemented to not only prevent bullying but to encourage positive interaction among peers.

.…Accommodating to individual needs.

The troops should encourage each person to progress through the ranks at his/her own pace while still giving them challenges to master in order to gain self-confidence. Ask if the troop leadership has been trained to recognize and support those with cognitive-sensory differences.

They should also be willing to meet with parents and discuss how the IEP or other assessment can be used to effectively develop a good plan of achievement for the individual Scout.

Read my article about accessing special needs accommodations in Scouts BSA.

…Building trust by meeting on a consistent basis.

My family’s Scouts BSA troop meets once a week all year for ages 11-18.  They have campouts or other events at least once a month. Obviously, good trusting relationships can be built in such an environment.

If your child would like to join at a young age, get involved in a Cub Pack (ages 5-11). Venturing Crews are high-adventure troops for young men and women ages 14-21.

 

Spend a week at Scout camp doing fun activities!

 

2. The scouting experience provides “free therapy”.

No other environment provides a place to learn therapeutic skills like Scouts BSA…without paying for expensive sessions!

Let me break that down by the 3 main “diagnostic traits” associated with autism:

Social-communication:

Scouts learn to communicate their needs to each other in order to accomplish tasks. For example, a patrol must talk and work together to solve a problem or master a challenge, like setting up a tent campsite or making a campfire recipe.

Most of the troop activities are interactive, so an autistic child will gain valuable social and communication skills. Very few (if any) therapy settings provide this level of interactive group learning to develop good social and communication skills.

Executive-Functioning:

By earning merit badges and ranks, Scouts learn to set short- and long-term achievement goals. With the help of adult leaders, they develop discipline to see those goals fulfilled.

Specific merit badges teach time management, cooking, self-care and hygiene, safety and first aid, awareness of the community, swim skills, and many, many more valuable life skills…everything that leads to greater independence, a strong work-ethic, and compassion for others.

Behavioral therapists may spend months working on ONE particular skill set, while Scouts provides the opportunities to enhance executive-functioning skills in a real-world, demonstrable setting.

Scouting also provides a setting that no office setting can possibly achieve. It allows them to also translate life skills into the real world.  That is why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth

Sensory:

The world of Scouts is a tactile world. There is a lot of hands-on activities to satisfy those who are sensory-seekers as well as those who need to develop fine and gross motor skills.

Some autistic Scouts enjoy the task of tying knots while others like the visual-spatial challenge of orienteering (which is using a compass to find hidden locations).

Being in a natural, calming environment during camp-outs is tremendously beneficial for those prone to sensory overload from other environments (especially without the distractions of electronics).

 

3. An autistic individual can learn valuable job skills.

Scouts is the perfect environment to develop both “hard” and “soft” job skills.

  • Marketing and sales? The troop sells popcorn, pizzas and snack food at festivals.

 

  • Face-to-face customer service?  The troop provides dinner fundraisers, serving guests with a smile. They also do many face-to-face community-service projects, such as collecting scrap metal and other “good neighbor” duties.

 

  • Leadership skills? They can serve in various roles, such as Patrol Leader, Troop Guide, and Quartermaster. Some are election-based and others volunteer-based.

 

  • Public speaking? Each scout learns to speak in front of the whole troops and parents during the Court of Honor ceremonies as they discuss what they learned earning their merit badges and rank advancements.

 

  • Interview skills? They promote themselves by explaining the reasons they should be elected to certain leadership positions within the troop.

 

  • Actual employment? Scouts have the opportunity to work at their local Scout camps.  My son worked as kitchen staff last summer and will again this year because they want him back so badly.  The camp director has a brother with autism and he was extremely helpful in getting my son acclimated to his job.  This was also a great opportunity to live away from home during the week to gain independent living skills. He came back a very confident, hard-working and conscientious young man.

 

Working towards the Citizenship in the Community merit badge

4. It provides many opportunities for family bonding.

Scouts provides a wonderful avenue to developing a stronger bond with one’s teenager. This is another reason why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth.

Teens who work alongside or at least witness their parents or other family members supporting them in their own interests and hobbies develop a greater relationship with them.

Here are reasons why parents are  highly encouraged to be involved in their son or daughter’s troop:

 

Scouts see their parents as a model to emulate.

When a scout sees his or her parent modeling the “Scout Motto” with others in his troop, he or she gains a deeper appreciation and respect for them. As the teen Scout matures, so does his/her family member in a leadership capacity.

Scouts work with their parents to achieve their rank advancements and merit badges.

Often a scout must complete many of the tasks required to earn badges at home.  For example, a family member can take the scout to witness a town hall meeting or help develop a food budget and menu list for the next camp-out.

Scouts work and have fun alongside their family.

Many parents and their scouts enjoy the time they spend at the weekend camp-outs together.  My husband and son loved to develop tasty meals together for campfire cooking.  Without the interference of the computer, phone or social media, they can spend quality one-on-one or group time together building memories.

 

Explore nature during fun Scouting expeditions

5. It offers a variety of thrilling adventure trips.

Scouts is unique from many other organizations—if your child loves adventure, then Scouts BSA provides! Not only does it have many council-based “reservations” (or camps) with a plethora of outdoor and indoor activities, but it also has several “high-adventure” camps throughout the country.

They also participate in many guided educational or nature-based excursions. Some even go on hiking expeditions in other countries. These are sure to boost your teen’s self-confidence!

Summer Camps:

Troops have the option to stay a week at their own council’s camp or they can go to another state. For most years our troop stayed close to home at more local camps. They were able to earn several merit badges during their time, learn valuable skills, and gain confidence being away from home.

Indian lore, photography, kayaking, swimming, cooking, movie-making, scuba-diving, and archery are just a few of the many things a scout can do at camp.

This year our troop is going to Medicine Mountain Camp in South Dakota to explore Mt. Rushmore and other surrounding sites.

Check out my article on helpful tips on getting your special needs youth ready for summer camp.

 

Guided Adventures:

Does your teen love space? Perhaps your troop can go to Space Camp for a week in Huntsville, Alabama.

Would your teen enjoy roughing it in a peaceful setting, canoeing and fishing? Then a guided tour of Holding a baby alligator during a Sea Base, Florida Keys expeditionBoundary Waters in Minnesota is the ticket.

Does your teen dream about sailing in the Caribbean? Sea Base in the Florida Keys is a Scouts BSA High-Adventure Camp that allows scouts to stay overnight on a 40-foot, multi-cabin sailboat and learn sailing skills for the week. Our troop did this, visited an alligator farm and rode a high-speed airboat through the Everglades. My son absolutely loved this experience! (And now wants to move to Florida…)

These adventurous excursions continue to grow in number each year, allowing more scouts to explore more places in the great outdoors and gain world-perspective.

 

Valuable Life Skills Learned in Scouts BSA

I truly believe that, more than any therapy or other organization, the scouting experience has shaped my autistic son into a confident young man with a valuable set of skills to lead him into a positive direction into adulthood.

He has achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, one of the proudest moments in our family’s lives.

Now that Boys Scouts of America has been changed to Scouts BSA, teen girls can join troops and earn the same merit badges and ranks as the boys.

My 15-year-old autistic daughter just joined the inaugural female troop that is affiliated with my husband’s and son’s troop.

I am very excited that now teen girls get the same opportunities to experience these benefits of Scouting!

Reach high and dream big in Scouts BSA!

Being a scout will give your child the opportunities to reach high and dream big! This is, I believe, why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth.

If “adventure is out there”, you will certainly find it in Scouts BSA!

 

For more information about Scouts BSA, visit the official website.

 

 

Fun activities to connect with your child at home

Fun Activities to Connect with Your Child at Home

Get on that trampoline with your child!  And have fun!

 

How to Connect with Your Child using Fun Home-Based Activities

There are a variety of fun activities you can do to connect with your child at home.  Some involve a lot of time, while others very little time and effort.

Just spending a few minutes a day doing something your child loves is sure-fire way to feel a greater bond.

Get Out of Therapy Rat-Race!

Do you feel like all you get accomplished during the week is shuffling your kids back and forth to a myriad of after-school activities and therapies?

Are the kids begging you to play but the laundry pile is taller than you?

Is “fun mom” taking a backseat to “chauffeur-dishwasher-cook-secretary-therapy mom”?

Besides feeling frustrated trying to keep up with daily life, many parents feel disconnected from their kids if communication and mutual understanding are challenging.

When my kids were young, they had meltdowns because I didn’t understand what they needed.  Hence, I felt like I needed to be their therapist or case manager to meet their greatest needs.

Sometimes what they really needed more was my time, attention and love…even if it was just 20 minutes.

Find that Joy at Home

If you want to go beyond figuring out your autistic child’s needs and connect with them in joyful, simple ways, here are some ideas—ranging from minimal effort to greater effort—that you can do everyday.

These activities are designed to foster meaningful interaction between two or more people as well as important life skills.  As your child’s first teacher, he or she will be looking to YOU to be a guide in daily behavior and relationships.

It’s time to grow, connect and make memories at home…together!

1. Read together a favorite book.

If they child is moving around or stimming, this is okay. If he or she seems to be listening, read it with flair and even act it out.

2. Be still next to your child.

No phones, no computer…just solitude together.  Just having someone nearby without a distraction is connecting.

3. Put on your child’s favorite music while doing chores together.

We put on Disney music on Pandora while we work together. It brings on a lot of laughter and singing while making boring chores more fun.

4. Jump on a trampoline together.

This is guaranteed to make you both smile and build strong muscles. (As long as you don’t pee your pants while you jump!)

5. Sing along to favorite songs while in the car.

This build camaraderie between the two of you as well as language skills for your child.

6. Recite nursery rhymes while taking walks.

We even like to recite movie scripts together.  Anything that fosters interaction between two or more people!

7. Swing right alongside your child!

I always had fun being silly while we were swinging side by side. The stimulation of swinging not only provides a great sensory outlet for pent-up energy. I believe it also helps many autistic children learn things and language better while they are in motion (like it did for mine).

8. Draw or color pictures together.

My daughter would make me draw a paused movie or cartoon scene. This began the spark of a lifelong passion for drawing for my daughter.  I am very grateful that she asked me to inspire her!

9. Play silly games that your child enjoys and understands.

Our favorite is Disney’s Apples-to-Apples game.  My kids end up laughing so hard and the silly associations they come up with.

10. Watch your child’s favorite TV show or movie without any other distractions.

This also means no phone, computer or iPad around.

11. Have your child pick out and make a recipe with you.

Not only does this provide an opportunity to learn self-help skills, but also mutual cooperation, taking instruction, tactile learning, engaging the many senses, and building a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence.

12. Work on a LEGO project together.

Working on a project your child loves says “I value your interests and I want to encourage you to explore them.”  Building a LEGO set together teaches mutual cooperation, communication and visual-spatial skills.

13. Take your child to a children’s museum or a zoo.

I have always loved taking my kids to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.  While sensory-intense, it allowed me to play alongside them and not be “mom”.  A day-trip to the zoo is also fun, although some sensory considerations must be taken in account.

14. If your child likes to draw or create stories, make a comic strip together.

You can help him or her develop some amazing skills in the process. This could be a long-term project you work on together, enabling a strong bond to grow.

15. Create a social story together dealing with something that is hard for your child.

Often it is extremely frustrating for both you and your child to resolve a tough problem.  You child may not be able to express his or her thoughts and feelings well. And you may not understand at all.   But sometimes visualizing the problem can help. Create or find a social story online that relates to the problem he or she is currently dealing with. It will be empowering for your child to have a hand in creating his/her own social story.

16. Explore nature parks and create journals with plants and animals you discovered.

I love walking in the woods with my kids.  Not only is therapeutically relaxing for all of us, but we use that time to teach cool nature facts.  If your child is a collector, bring a bag to stash leaves, acorns, and other discoveries. Then you can research what they are and create a nature journal together in the process.

17. Do fun science experiments—video record what happens.

Some science experiments are wacky fun!  What happens when you put a Mentos in Diet Coke?  How do you make your own homemade lava lamp?  These are activities that don’t require a lot of verbal communication to see results.  Watching videos of these projects can help when providing instructions. Take pictures of your efforts to make the memories last longer!

18. Download a star-gazing app and learn about the different stars, planets and other things in the night sky.

If your child is naturally inquisitive like mine about the night sky, he or she will really enjoy the time you spend picking out the constellations, stars and planets.  What a beautiful way to connect with your child than over the great natural wonders beyond our world!

19. Go camping or enjoy a staycation somewhere local for a night or two.

Camping is a unique experience in that you get out in nature and away from electronic distractions.  There is nothing like enjoying quiet moments together at the campfire.  Staycations are great for getting your child used to travel and getting acclimated to spending more days away from home.  Plus, travel expands the learning mind!

For tips on how to introduce the experience of camping to your autistic child, read my article “Easing Your Child Into Camping”.

20. Start planning a week-long trip to Disneyland or Walt Disney World with your child!

It is so much fun to spend time with my kids pouring over the Disney maps and finding our favorite attractions. Then we watch Disney planning videos of the resorts and point-of-view videos of the attractions together.  It’s exciting to dream up our vacation plans together!

21. Learn musical instruments together—play songs at Christmas time or whenever you feel like it.

Not only have you develop a love of music together, you have taught your special needs child how to work cooperatively with another person toward a goal.  Learning to play music enhances personal growth as well.  Music appreciation and knowing how to play an instrument will remain lifelong passions!

22. Take an online course together.

This honestly could be anything (like learning how to draw mandalas). Most likely, however, your child will be steering the interest.  You can find a wide variety of course on Udemy or Khan Academy.  One really cool course is learning how to be a Disney animator!

23. Join a hobby club together.

If your child loves animals and crafts, then 4H is a wonderful club.  If your child likes building with electronics, then many communities have robotics clubs. Check with your child’s school or local library to find out where all the hobby clubs in your area meet. Get involved as a leader and/or helping your child with the projects.

24. Serve as a leader of a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop to which your child belongs.

There are some amazing benefits for kids on the spectrum when they join a Scout troop!  Not to mention the wonderful bonding opportunities between you and your child when you get involved as a troop leader. A long-term Scouting experience builds strong character and growth as well as provides opportunities for employment and resume-building.

25. Homeschool your child.

This may take a period of transition if your child is used to public school. But after some initial hard days and refusals—if that applies to your child—the reward of having a deeper relationship with your child will pay off!

I homeschooled my daughter for two years during middle school. I believed those years allowed us to forge a strong, trusting mother-daughter bond that has carried through into her public high school year so far.

Chores Can Wait…Joy Lasts Forever!

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get caught up on laundry because you bounced on the trampoline with your child.

And you won’t remember making the perfect Pinterest dinner as much as the moment of pride in listening to your child sing a Disney song for the first time while swinging together!

Your child will be overjoyed just to have exclusive time with you. He or she will remember those fun moments for years to come.

Take pictures of those moments!  Taking a trip down memory lane together years in the future is another great opportunity to reconnect over pleasant times.

Consider doing one or more of these fun activities you can do at home to connect with your child at least once a week.  Let “fun mom” come out to play!

It’s time to connect with your child by making memories of everyday life at home!

 

 

An Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children's Museum

An Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum

See a mama dinosaur and her baby trying to get into the Indianapolis Children's Museum!

Your Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum

If you have ever wanted to visit the Indianapolis Children’s Museum but were afraid of an intense sensory environment, then allow me to guide you as you navigate your visit with an autism.

 

The “Awesome-est” Museum on the Planet!

What do dinosaurs, a space station, a giant “chocolate” slide, an archeological dig in China, an old-fashioned carousel, and Super Mario Brothers have in common?

Why, they are all located at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum!

There is no other museum that my family and I have visited that is quite like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.  You can spend several hours, even days, exploring its 5 floors of highly interactive, sensory and educational exhibits.

While most exhibits are permanent, some are temporary for a few months (such as Paw Patrol) or a few years (Take Me There Greece). With actual science experts and interpreters available to answer questions, this is truly a working and ever-evolving museum.

 

Obsessions Fulfilled!

Trains, trains...who loves trains? Find them here at the Indianapolis Children's Museum.Is anyone in your family really into model trains? They have several displays and places to play with toy trains…and an actual steam locomotive used in the late 1800s!

 

Is anyone into dinosaurs? They have real, life-size dinosaur bones on display, a “dig for bones” site, and play areas with giant eggs and dinosaur figures.

 

Is anyone into learning about archeological finds from Egypt, China and the Caribbean? Try on scuba gear, put together pieces of a sarcophagus, or use tools to discover relics from China’s past.

 

Visit a replica of the Space Station at the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Is anyone into space exploration? Discover what it’s like to live on a space station and watch the frequently-run planetarium films on different space-related topics.

 

And much, much MORE! (I’m just scratching the surface of what is there.)

Not Just for Kids!

While its name implies that it’s only for children, I highly beg to differ.  Just recently they had an enormous exhibit of Star Trek paraphernalia, including models of the Enterprise and the costumes worn by the original cast of the TV show and most recent movies.

 

My old Star Wars lunch box is here! I was as giddy as a small child upon discovering that they had my very first lunchbox—a red Empire Strikes Back—encased in a display.

 

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is truly a place for ALL ages. Each exhibit caters to the different developmental stages and sensory experiences—audio, visual, tactile, smell, kinesthetic—making the museum a complete and playful learning environment.

 

Warning…Potential Overload!

Because it is so sensory rich, this can pose problems for some children and adults on the spectrum.  For one, it can be incredibly LOUD.  It can also be very CROWDED (like, theme park crowded) on certain holidays and weekends.

Some displays are very visually stimulating.  The planetarium can be overwhelming for those afraid of darker spaces.  My own autistic children experienced sensory overload within about 4 hours, needing to get away for a short break.

With this in mind, I want to provide you with some important tips for making your trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum a fun and memorable experience for everyone involved.

Come explore with me as I provide you with an autism guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum!

 

BEFORE YOU GO…

1. Plan out when and how long you can visit.

Can you visit during the weekday when it’s not so crowded?

Sometimes the museum has certain “free days” over holidays…DON’T GO THEN!

It is also very crowded over spring break weekend.  Can you visit one day or two?  Can your family handle only a couple hours at a time or all day with a break?

If you live far away and are spending some time in the area, then consider a two-day experience to spread it out, especially if it becomes too overwhelming after a few hours.

 

2. Explore the website of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

You’ll be able to see pictures and a few videos of the different attractions in each exhibit.

Also, watch YouTube videos of the attractions with your autistic loved one to get a better sense of what to expect in terms of behavior or anticipated excitement.

Have fun getting to the know the museum with your child!

 

3. Download the Sensory Guide while you plan your trip.

This very thorough resource is designed to help families with autism have the best possible experience. You can print this out at home or ask for one from a ticket-taker.  You will need to have it with you as you go through the museum as there are no sensory designation signs at the exhibit entrances.

They also provide a Social Narrative that you can read with your autistic loved one at home to prepare for this experience. A very helpful Visual Checklist has social story cue cards—both pre-verbal requests as well as pictures of the exhibits—that you can print off and laminate to use while you are at the museum. You can make a pre-determined schedule based on your child’s interests as well as sensory needs.

You can learn about their full range of their accessibility program here.

 

For better prices, buy your tickets to the Indianapolis Children's Museum online.

4. Find out if you qualify for any discounts.

You can get a 25% discount by buying tickets 2-weeks in advance through the website. If your autistic loved one can’t wait in a long ticket line, this is especially helpful.

They do NOT offer AAA discounts at the museum, but you may ask your local AAA office (as well as employee-based programs) if they can sell discounted tickets.

Consider buying a family membership if you plan spend more than one day there within the year and have more than a couple of children within the family.

Another idea: suggest getting tickets or membership as holiday or birthday gifts.

If you are a resident of Indiana and have Medicaid or your autistic kids have a Medicaid-based family supports waiver, your family qualifies for the Access Pass. It will allow you to get in at $2/person.

The Glass Tower by Dale Chiluly...right through the center of the museum

 

WHEN YOU ARRIVE…

5. Come earlier in the day.

Be there at the hour they open if possible. Usually there are less people in the first couple of hours.

If your child has a hard time waiting in line, have a helper wait with him or her while you go get tickets.

6. Visit the concierge for assistance, including sensory tools.

If you didn’t bring your own noise-cancelling headphones, ask for a pair from the level 1 concierge desk.  (I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THESE AS THIS PLACE CAN BE LOUD.) You can find it past the giant water clock near the elevators.

7. Consider starting at the top floor first, then work your way down.

Most people want to explore the lower levels first. But for a shorter line at the carousel (only $1 to ride/person) visit level 4 first thing in the morning.  The exhibits here—Carousel Wishes & Dreams and Science Works—are also the most sensory-stimulating in terms of noise, tactile- movement, visual-spatial, and lighting. You child may be able to handle this area earlier in the day when he or she is less tired and not ripe for a meltdown.

8. Playscape is open to special needs kids. Normally, this very hands-on, movement-based area (level 3) is only for children 5 and under.  But if your older, autistic child would like to explore water, sand, colors, and a climbing structure, feel free to play here.

Read about amazing kids who made a difference in our world! (Also a good quiet spot)9. For some quiet, down-time, visit The Power of Children.

It is a reflective, educational exhibit (level 3) of the lives of three important children who made a difference in the world.  There may be some spaces that induce a calming effect.

Other quiet areas are found on Level 2:  around the ramp (Mini-Masterpieces and Stories from Our Community) and Big Bad and Bizarre where you can find a dark, quiet overlook of the Dinosphere® exhibit.

 10. When you get hungry…

The Food Court can be very chaotic and loud around lunchtime. There is plenty of space to eat so consider the tables further from the cashiers.

But if you would rather bring your own lunch (especially with a special diet), there is a quiet place outside the food court just inside the Dinosphere®.

Ask the concierge if there are other places you can eat that are quieter.

11. If your child is a runner…

Bring along a tracker device if necessary or something your child can wear with your identification and phone number.

Several exhibits have more than one entrance. Dinosphere® is dark, so it can be hard to constantly track your child.

Alert staff “interpreters” at exhibit entrances that your child has autism and is susceptible to take off without warning. They can alert other staff to locate your child.

Consider bringing along other helpers.  Call ahead to see if your certified respite care worker is entitled to a free ticket (317-334-4000).

 12. Potentially “scary places”…Dinosphere is a sensory-intense envrironment!

These include:

  • the Treasures of the Earth elevator (simulates riding down a semi-dark mine-shaft that rattles);
  • the Planetarium (can be disconcerting due to being very dark and playing shows on the rounded ceiling); and…
  • Dinosphere® (darker area with special effects sounds and sights, including dinosaur growling and stormy weather).

With good preparation, your child might be fine handling these.

Watch a video of the experience. Then create a social story with your child.

 

PLAN WELL…HAVE FUN!

While it’s important to be prepared it’s also important to “go with the flow”.  That includes not pushing your child to keep going when they have had enough.

I recommend spending more than one day if you are not from Indiana. Make it a weekend getaway and visit the Indianapolis Zoo as well!

My autistic kids absolutely love this place, even as teenagers. Every visit has been a little different as they have grown up and the museum morphs with new exhibits. We had our challenges with sensory overload (including me!). But it’s one of the most enriching learning and playful places on the planet.

With an autism guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum to help you navigate the sensory experiences, you’ll a greater chance of having a lots of fun!

See Bumblebee and hear him talk at the Indianapolis Children's Museum lobby!

 

 

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is definitely an experience your family will never forget!

 

 

 

I would love to help you plan a fun-filled getaway like this!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

Why Autism Families Need Vacations

Why Autism Families Need Vacations

 

Why Autism Families NEED Vacations Like Everyone Else

It’s actually not hard to explain why autism families need vacations, considering the challenges that they go through on a daily basis.  Vacations provide respite to relieve stress and encourage greater family bonds through fun.

I’ll be honest. My heart BROKE when I read this one particular statistic about autism families:

When surveyed by an autism affiliated travel organization, 87% of autism families stated they did NOT take vacations within the last THREE YEARS.* 

Why?!

 

Why Autism Families DON’T Take Vacations

For some people vacation is not a priority. They never took one as a child and don’t see the necessity now.  For others, vacation is only a dream because they cannot financially afford it.

And then there are those families who want one and can afford it but who just don’t go.

Perhaps they believe that vacations would only add to their stress, not take it away. They believe they could not handle the possibilities of even more meltdowns.

They tell themselves…“someday”.

Maybe many autism families are not aware of the greater number of accommodations that are now in place at popular vacation destinations.

Or they don’t realize that their autistic loved one may be totally capable of handling the change of scenery with the right preparation.

By not taking vacations—even smaller staycations on a semi-frequent basis—autism families lose out.

They miss out on opportunities to positively change the family dynamics, especially when they experience high levels of daily stress in the home.

 

Top 5 Reasons Why Autism Families NEED Vacations

If you are part of an autism family that is hesitant about taking vacations, take a moment to reflect upon these reasons why you MUST take a vacation.

1. Vacations create precious memories.

A unique setting away from home will almost guarantee that you will remember your time there.  Was there something you saw that was awe-inspiring?  What was the look on your loved one’s faces when they witnessed it as well?  Were there moments of laughter?

We love looking at our facial expressions in photos after we rode thrilling attractions at Walt Disney World…cracks us up!  Sure, there will be trying times in a new environment.

But there is nothing like reminiscing over moments of pure joy you’ve captured through videos and photos to make it through tough days at home.

Take lots of pictures of your trips. Have conversations at home about what happened during your travels. Use these as a springboard to plan another exciting vacation.

If making memories at home is few and far between, it’s time to take a vacation!

2. Vacations mean greater family bonding.

Ever heard of the phrase, “a family that plays together stays together”?  I heartily believe in this.

Everyone needs a break from the daily grind that keeps family members apart, especially when life gets too serious from school, work, or other obligations.

Playing together brings families closer and reminds them what is really important in life: enjoying each other’s company.

My son and I really bond over riding our favorite attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Hollywood Tower of Terror.  He acts like a dramatic storyteller giving me the backdrop narrative as we walk through the queue to be seated.  His excitement is so infectious that I can’t help but share in it. Then we rush back to the rest of the family to tell them all about what happened on the ride.

Joyful interaction leads to greater bonding, and vacations are the secret recipe for joy!

3. Vacations are therapy.

I strongly believe that vacation is another form of therapy that is necessary for the social, mental, emotional and even physical health of everyone in the family.

When people are placed in new environments it can be a challenge, just like a new therapy.

But many parents have reported amazing strides from their autistic children while on vacations, even at places like Disney.  Some spoke new words. Some showed greater resilience to a new schedule and sensory input.

When a child is truly enthralled to be in a place that is tremendously fun and has characters he or she loves, often he or she will show greater motivation and effort to communicate that excitement and to transition better.

My daughter showed a increased willingness to step out of her comfort zone during our past trip to Walt Disney World by going on attractions she would have never dared step foot in before—she went on Space Mountain 3 times with her brother, long after my husband and I pooped out.

We are always amazed at the amount of positive behavioral changes that come with each new visit.  Personal growth that would have taken several therapy sessions to achieve happened within one single vacation!

4. Vacations inspire creativity.

A relaxed mind, body and spirit means being more receptive to creative ideas.  Exciting destinations and natural environments stimulate “out-of-the-box” thinking that can inspire people to consider new directions in their personal lives.

And that inspiration continues long after you get home from vacation.

For my autistic teens, being at Walt Disney World inspired them to develop public speaking skills playing Walt Disney World tour guides in speech therapy and to create Disney-like symphonies in music therapy.

My son writes fan fiction inspired by the Disney stories, and my daughter draws cartoon characters inspired by the characters.

Those vacations motivated me to become a travel planner as I obsessed about the history and amenities of the parks.

Every time we go our excitement for the park experience grows and fulfills our need for creative inspiration.

5. Because life is short!

Do you ever look back on the past wishing you made a different choice?

Many people often regret that they didn’t take time out to do what they really wanted to do, and taking more vacations is one of them.

Vacations give people a better perspective on their lives, something that is hard to do at home. The respite from vacation allows them to do several things:

  • contemplate what really matters
  • take stock of what they need to do to further their purpose and fulfill their dreams
  • analyze if something they are doing in their daily lives is really worth the effort.

Knowing that her time on earth was short, my sister took a “bucket-list” vacation to the Fiji Islands.  She took as many opportunities to see the world within the year before she died. I know she left very happy and fulfilled.

As some have said, “we only have today”. So, go out and explore the world today with your family.

Don’t short-change yourself…“seize the day”!

 

More Autism Accommodations than Ever Before

There is much greater awareness of the needs of autism are in the public consciousness. And more vacation destinations are stepping up to assist more effectively.

Cruises now cater to families with different sensory needs.  Theme parks include information and accommodations to help those on the spectrum.  And many destinations are become certified autism centers.

There are simply fewer reasons NOT to take a vacation in light of the fact that more destinations are becoming autism-friendly.

I understand that you may be afraid to take that leap into a strange environment with a child who craves routine and structure.  Here are some tips to help you face those vacation fears!

If you are looking for even MORE reasons to take a vacation, check out this article “What Taking a Vacation Does to Your Body and Brain”.

 

Experience a Well-Rounded Life through Travel

Will you “seize” the opportunity to make memories?

Do you want to forge greater bonds with your family?

Would you like to experience the potential therapeutic benefits through exploration of a new destination?

Do you and your family desire to be creatively inspired?

Are you super ready let go of the stress that is keeping you and your family from feeling connected?

If yes to any or all, then start planning that vacation…TODAY! 

 

I would love to be a part of your vacation planning!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

*Source: ibcces.org

 

Trains Your Autism Family Will Love

Learn about Getaways with Trains Your Autism Family Will Love

In this article you will learn about the different events and trips with trains your autism family will love. If trains are big fascination in your household, discover how you can satisfy that passion with a trip to a railway!

 

The Magic of Trains

There is something magical about trains.  They represent history, grandeur, power and nostalgia.  They are an endless source of fascination for young and old alike.

Whenever a model-train set is present, complete with a beautifully built scenic backdrop, you’ll see crowds with their eyes fixated on every little detail.

Most children seem fascinated by Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.  Created as a book series but popularized by videos, Thomas is a worldwide recognizable character.

When I brought the videos home from the library, my son was absolutely in awe.  Slowly, through birthday and Christmas gifts, we built our Thomas the Tank Engine character collection—Gordon, Percy and Edmund were our favorites.

But soon it became a motivational reward for good work and good behavior.  After all, I simply couldn’t buy a train every time we walked into Barnes & Noble bookstores.

Waiting to acquire and welcome another friend of Thomas into our home was a good lesson in delayed gratification.

 

Trains & Autism

Many people speculate a correlation between a train fascination/obsession and autism. I don’t know of any conclusive studies on that. But both of my autistic kids loved the show and the toys.

  • Perhaps it the constancy and dependability of trains running on a track or lining them up in a straight line?
  • Was it was the feeling of control over motion or the spinning of the wheels?
  • Or maybe it was the simplistic emotions of the characters in the movies, or the fact that they express themselves without actually moving their mouths?
  • Was it teaching them to connect a character’s actions to consequences in a more understandable way?
  • Did playing with the trains provide a sense of stability and comfort in their lives?

I would say YES to all of these, at least for my kids.

To avoid over-analyzing the reasons, I would simply state that my kids made a strong connection to these characters.

Translating what they saw in the videos to actual play with the same characters as real toys made a big impact on their development.

While my son was very particular about me playing with Thomas, I was allowed to play with Percy. (He let me set up the tracks, which I was more than happy to do.) He was pretty adamant about playing with trains HIS particular way, preferring to reenact the movie scenes rather than interact with me.

But gradually it moved from a side-by-side model of play to more two-way cooperative play. Eventually being forced to share his trains with his sister, he learned how to share and negotiate.

 

From Toys to the “Real Thing”

Then, the movie The Polar Express came out in theaters. Boy, did my kids enjoy that film!

A year or two later did I find out that a railroad depot somewhere in my state offered a Polar Express train excursion, complete with hot cocoa and a visit by Santa and Mrs. Claus.

I drove two and a half hours with my son to ride this for his birthday.  He was pretty thrilled, to say the least.  Over the years we did other train excursions.

I think by the time the “Day Out with Thomas” event became pretty popular, my son had become a pre-teen and moved on to Legos and Disney. I do wish we could have experienced that when my kids were younger.

 

Riding Thomas the Tank Engine

OPTION 1: Day Out with Thomas

If you child loves the Thomas the Tank Engine series, then actually getting to ride him would be a dream come true!

The event is promoted as “Day Out with Thomas” and requires advanced ticket purchases.  They are held from Spring to Fall and in only one or two locations across several states.

If you have to travel far, consider making it a short vacation. Check out the “Event Information” page to see what fun activities they offer besides the train-ride.

Bring your camera! (This is generally a short train ride—around 30 min.)

OPTION 2: Thomas-Land at Edaville Family Theme Park.

If riding Thomas at your local railway station is not enough, consider planning a trip to the Edaville Family Theme Park in South Carver, Massachusetts.

They have an entire land devoted to Thomas & Friends, filled with fun rides and attractions!

They even host sensory friendly awareness weekends to promote education and safety for families with autism.

OPTION 3: Visit the Thomas & Friends website

You can keep the fun alive at home when you visit the website!

The Thomas & Friends website has an incredibly array of information, including fun activities for kids, resources for parents (including using Thomas as a teaching tool), and the various Thomas-oriented events around the country.

 

Riding the Polar Express

If riding a Christmas train seems more enticing, then the Polar Express is what you’re looking for!

In my home state of Indiana, families like to travel to French Lick for this hugely popular seasonal event.  The local historic hotels offer vacation packages for young families who attend this event.

I remember seeing many children enter the West Baden Hotel wearing pajamas and carrying a stuffed toy because they just got off the Polar Express.

The train travels a certain distance, then stops to pick up Santa and Mrs. Claus who visit with each child.  Hot cocoa is passed out and each child is provided a small “gift”. (This ride generally runs 60-75 minutes long.)

 

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND RESEARCHING THE EVENT DATES AND BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE!

Even though over the years more excursions are made available at each railway site, these tickets are often snatched up quick!

Don’t rely on getting tickets a day or two before you plan to go.

 

Other Railway Events

There are many other seasonal events that will bring delight for train enthusiasts!

The men and boys in my family took part in a Wild West Hold-Up sponsored by the French Lick Scenic Railway, brought to life by reenactors in cowboy attire on horseback and others in period clothes. Even my teen son really enjoyed the experience.

(*NOTE: the “robbers” do not actually take your wallets, personal items, or hostages!)

They also host the Easter Bunny Express and the Dinosaur Adventure Train.

To find out more about other events like these, contact the railways in your state.

In Indiana:

French Lick Scenic Railway: https://frenchlickscenicrailway.org/

Whitewater Valley Railroad: https://whitewatervalleyrr.org/

 

Final Tips When Visiting a Railway

Even though your child may like trains, behavior may still be unpredictable in a new environment.  It would be wise to prepare your child.

Create a social story about the journey. Watch videos of kids riding the Thomas train to generate excitement.  Bring along snacks and comforting sensory items.  Alert railway attendees and the conductor if necessary that you child has autism and may need extra accommodations.

It would also be a good idea to know how long the time ride will be in advance. If your child can only handle short rides, then Thomas would be a better fit than the Polar Express.

Plan to do decompressing activities after the ride (swim at a hotel, play at a playground, etc.) if the amount of people at the event seems overwhelming.

 

Rail Journeys to Explore the World

I miss those days of watching my kids play with trains.  But train excursions don’t have to end when childhood is over.

When you visit large cities, take the subway.  (Find out why many kids on the spectrum love this mode of transportation here!)

Or better yet, consider taking a train vacation across country.  You can travel by rail from the nearest major city to the western national parks. The Grand Canyon offers sightseeing excursions by rail.

There are even amazing rail vacations in Europe!

See the world traveling on trains!

If there certain types of train experiences your family will love, I’d love to help you plan a amazing vacation package!

Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

 

 

Certified Autism Centers versus Autism Friendly

“Certified Autism Centers” Versus “Autism Friendly”

“Certified Autism Centers” Versus “Autism Friendly” Vacation Destinations

It’s hard to know the difference between destinations that are certified autism centers versus autism friendly.

When my kids were little I never even heard of the term “autism friendly”.

Whenever we traveled to visit a children’s museum, a zoo, a county fair, or an amusement park, we handled a sensory meltdown in the best way we could.  Being the one to take them places, I just dealt with it on my own.

Before we really got the chance to make the most of our time at these fun places, out of exhaustion and frustration we often just simply…LEFT.

So, when I found out about certain theme and water parks being “certified autism centers” I was extremely curious.

 

Why is Being a “Certified Autism Center” Such a Big Deal?

In July 2018, Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, became the first theme park to become a designated “Certified Autism Center”…and it was all over the news.

For a parent whose children have autism, it felt like a HUGE deal!  With the certification planted front and center on its website and at the parks, families with autism felt an enormous amount of support and understanding.

In a sense, it was a morale booster for the collective population of autistic individuals and their families. Finally, the world was recognizing that their needs were valued.

 

What Being a “Certified Autism Center” Means

To earn this certification, a company partners with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Educations Standards (www.ibcces.org).  This allows parks like Sesame Place to be recognized as adhering to a particular standard in which they provide educated assistance to those with autism.

Other facts about this credential:

  • At least 80% of the staff must complete training to understand what it’s like to have autism, including the differences in sensory awareness, fine and gross motor skills, and social and emotional awareness.

 

  • An on-site review is conducted on a regular basis to ensure greater accommodations in its layout and attractions as well as staff sensitivities to autism needs.

 

  • Detailed sensory guides must be created to let parents know what attractions the child with autism can handle (which can be downloaded and previewed before visiting the park).

 

  • The park offers sensory break rooms and equipment (such as noise-cancelling headphones).

 

  • The end goal is to provide a positive vacation experience to all families, including those with autism.

Sesame Street came out with the first autistic character, Julia, and has been a diversity advocate since the beginning.  It doesn’t surprise me that Sesame Place became the first theme park to earn this important certificate.

Aquatica Orlando became the first waterpark to be designated a “Certified Autism Center”. Just like Sesame Place, you will find resources on its website to plan your visit with your autism family.

For the full list of places that have received the “Certified Autism Center” credential, visit Autism Travel.

 

What Being “Autism Friendly” Means

There are actually many places to visit that are “autism friendly”. They may not have the “autism certified center” designation (YET), but most have a fair amount of accommodations to help autism families.

This also means that their accommodations are not standardized.  Each park has developed their own system to assist people on the spectrum. They may greatly vary in the types of accommodations they offer, so “autism friendly” means different things.

You have to visit each park website—and sometimes really dig to find the information—or call with questions.

Disney Parks

The Disney Parks, like many theme or amusement parks, offer accommodations for waiting in long queues, called the “Disability Access Service”.

In Disneyland, you get the return time for attractions at certain kiosks throughout the park (had to do a  hard “search” for this link!).

In Walt Disney World, you get the return time at the actual attraction itself (link is found under the “Help” tab).

Even though they are both Disney parks, they each have different processes. To my knowledge, cast members direct autism families to their first aid station if they need a “break room” but do not offer a special sensory room.

Dollywood

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has created a social story about its park through the website.  They built a “calming room” for those in need a sensory break.  You’ll find items like weighted blankets and a teepee.

They also include rider requirements and accessibility guideline documents to help you prepare for the trip.  Many families have been delighted to find that this park has gone the extra mile to accommodate.

 

Is One Credential Better Than Another?

Parks that are “certified autism centers” are more prepared when it comes to accommodating someone with autism.  They have gone through in-depth training.

In addition, they are more likely to accommodate in not just a systematic, park approach but also in a more sensitive, personal way.

It’s unclear how much autism training “autism friendly” parks employees receive.  I suspect those who help families like ours are more familiar with autism and more sensitive. But this scenario may not always be so consistently.

You can have a good time no matter where you go with the right preparation and a little research.  And THAT is my mission of Your Autism Guide.

Over time, I want to provide you with the right resources to best prepare your family to have a truly enjoyable vacation!

 

I would love to help you figure out the best vacation destination based on your child’s and whole family’s needs.  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

Ease your child into camping

Easing Your Child Into Camping

Camping under the stars

In this article I outline the the five steps to take (in order, preferably) to easing your child into the camping experience for the first time.

Making camping with autism a positive experience

It’s one thing to stay in a hotel with comfy beds and the allure of a pool.  It’s another to practically sleep on the ground with nothing but a thin nylon tent separating you and nature.

Many children on the spectrum are adamant about maintaining a nighttime routine.  One little change may lead to a meltdown.

Let me state the obvious: camping disrupts that normal sleep pattern. New “bed,” new place to sleep, new routine, new sights and sounds.  That means unpredictable behaviors.

It’s one thing to avoid camping if it’s just not appealing to everyone in the family.  But if you’re avoiding camping adventures just because you want to avoid unwanted behaviors, I urge you to seriously reconsider!

Don’t miss out on the potential to bond with family and friends in a relaxing, therapeutic environment!  By slowly easing your child into camping adventures, you will find it a much less stressful process to instill a love of vacationing in the great outdoors.

 

Learning to love camping takes time

The smell of roasting marshmallows over the fire.  The thrill of catching fireflies.  The fun of camping in a tent. Everyone is relaxed and happy.

That idyllic picture of camping is not often reality.

We introduced our young kids to camping jumping in head-first. We started off great.  We fished and cooked and played on the playground.

But by 5 AM the next morning my 5-year-old daughter was crying inconsolably. Nothing seemed to calm her down.

Fearing wrath from the entire campsite, who were all still asleep, we packed up our equipment with rapid speed. By 7 AM we had left the campsite with very cranky kids.

We vowed not to try this again for a while.

And we didn’t…. something I regret.

Even with the most seasoned and experienced campers, things don’t always go as planned.

Sometimes an important item is left at home. Your gear doesn’t set up properly.  Someone doesn’t sleep well.  Someone is complaining about the food.  Someone can’t stop crying.  Mosquitos are sucking the life out of you!  UGH!

And then you start thinking… Why didn’t we just stay home?!

Actually, that’s not a bad idea.

 

“Wean” into camping

Maybe, like mine, your own childhood memories are filled with wonderful camping expeditions with your family. Maybe, like me, you can’t wait to share that love with your own kids.

But camping can feel like a very strange and scary thing to do for an autistic child who may become terrified when his or her daily routine is thrown out of whack and comfort zone severely challenged.

My kids were on the verge of getting their autism diagnoses when we first camped. Once I became familiar with autism, my child-rearing philosophy changed.  I realized (many times the hard way) that adapting my kids to new things needed to be set at their own pace.

And, yet, I still needed to motivate them enough to try new challenges. I had to be a little more patient and “wean” them into unfamiliar experiences.  If I had known then what I know now, we would have introduced them more gradually to idea of camping and helped ease them into camping.

If the idea of camping can be introduced in “digestible, bite-size chunks”, then the actual experience away from home can go a little more smoothly and become something your child will actually enjoy.

 

5 Steps to Easing Your Child into Camping

I recommend that you do these steps in order and as long as necessary to feel comfortable before moving to the next one.

 

1. Set up camp in your child’s bedroom.

What a fun way to introduce the idea of camping than in your child’s most comfortable place!

I always wanted a bed-fitted tent when I was a child, but I couldn’t convince my parents to buy one. So, I set up blankets over my bedpost and invited my sisters into my “tent” to play games and read stories.

Get your child comfortable sleeping in a tent in his or her own bed, whether it’s an actual bed-tent or something created. Maintain your normal bedtime routine. Bring in comfortable, familiar items (favorite blanket, toy or sensory equipment).

Use this time to talk about it as “camping” in order to associate it with a positive, comforting experience. Practice using flashlights.

*(If your child is co-sleeping with you, consider setting up something beside your bed.)

 

2. Set up camp in your living room.

This can be done during the day on a pretend-play basis at first. Keep a small play tent up permanently if you have room.

Do what you would do in a real camping experience: pretend sleep (or take real naps), pretend building a campfire, pretend cook, pretend fish, etc.

Include favorite comfort sensory items, like a soft or weighted blanket, fidget spinner, or a stuffed toy.

Watch videos of people camping to show what it’s like. Find or create your own social story of the outdoor camping experience so your child can associate fun “home camping” with camping in a new place.

When your child is ready, set up an overnight “living room camping” in which everyone in the family is involved.  It could be included alongside your own weekend routine (like a movie or game-night) but call it “inside camping” when it’s time to sleep.

Share your enthusiasm with your child—make it fun!  Do this a few times until you think your child is ready to try a new place to camp.

 

3. Set up camp in your backyard (if possible).

Moving your camp from indoors to outdoors can feel like sudden transition, even though you are still at home. There might be some anxiety about the darkness, being outside, hearing different sounds, etc.

Consider setting up a tent outside during the day for pretend-play first.  Let your child explore the fun of outside-camping on his/her own.

If you can set up a campfire in your backyard, begin to introduce how to behave around a fire and perhaps cooking over a fire during the evening hours. Start introducing camping tools, like hot dog forks.

When you’re ready, have the family move to the tent to sleep. Be sure to include the same favorite bedtime routines and sensory items. Even if your child can only sleep half-way through the night outside, it’s a big step!

Keep trying until you make it through the night.

 

4. Set up camp at a family or friend’s house.

At this point your child should be more comfortable being outside. But now it’s time to move to another place away from home.

I suggest possibly setting up camp in the backyard of a beloved family member or friend as a way to transition to a real campground experience. Maybe grandma or grandpa would like to host your family’s camp-out and be willing to welcome you in the house in the event your child becomes anxious.

Remember, same routine…same comfort items.

 

5. Set up camp at a nearby campground or state park.

When ready, consider staying somewhere close by for one night, say…maybe less than an hour away (if possible).

Some campgrounds require more than one night minimum on holidays, so if you’re not ready for more than one night you may have to go on non-holiday weekends.  That’s probably best to avoid the crowds.

Conduct some research into the campground. Does it have nice amenities that will allow your child to feel comfortable and have fun? Fishing, swimming, playground, hiking, outdoor games?

Be sure to include the familiar things from the previous camping experiences at home, including favorite meals, bedtime routine and personal sensory items.

The fact that the family is sleeping together in one tent or camper will provide some comfort in this new situation as well.

 

Small Steps Lead to Giant Achievements

While camping may be a hard transition for your special needs child, it will foster in him or her a love of nature as well as some incredible life skills.

When children overcomes their fears, they often feel a burst of self-confidence. This leads to a greater willingness to try new things beyond their comfort zones.  Camping provides many new experiences to build self-confidence.

Besides vacations with family, one of the best ways to learn life skills and build confidence while camping is participating in a scouting organization.

My 17-year-old son has camped so many times with his Boy Scout troop I lost count. Simple weekend camp-outs led to week-long adventures.

When he was 14-years-old he spent several nights along lakesides at Boundary Waters in Minnesota.  This past summer he explored the iconic Black Hills in South Dakota.  His ultimate camping adventure was sleeping on a sailboat for a week in the Florida Keys.

Because he was comfortable enough to sleep outside away from home and family for a week at a time, he got a job at the local scout camp.  He now has gained valuable employment skills.

Apart from therapy, Scouting has provided some of the greatest social and developmental benefits for my autistic kids. Read my article “Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth” to understand how involvement in Scouts leads to incredible personal growth.

 

Easing into Camping is the Key to Self-Growth

To access the potential development of life skills and self-confidence, consider camping!  Hopefully, the five steps I have outlined of easing your child into the camping experience will help significantly in achieving those goals!

The trick is to maintain a sense of familiarity by using similar routines and comfort items from home and transfer the camping experience across different settings—from inside to outside and from home to another place.

Try to keep the experience positive all the way through the learning process to reinforce that camping is a “good thing”. Push limits but recognize when enough is enough.  It may take weeks, months or even years…but you’ll get there!

For more information about the sensory and autism-related considerations of the camping experience, read my article “Camping with Autism“. You will also find helpful tips on campers to help you decide which ones is most suitable for your needs.

Above all, have fun!!  The whole experience gets easier the more times you try it!

 

 

If you think your older child may be ready for camp experience for one night or several nights away from home, check out this very informative article by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before Going to Walt Disney World with Autism

 

What to do BEFORE going to Walt Disney World

If you are dreaming of a trip to see your family’s favorite Disney characters, there are some things to do before you actually go to Walt Disney World.  In this article you’ll find helpful tips to ensure a good trip with autism!

A Disney Obsession

My kids really enjoy our vacations to Walt Disney World.  No, I mean, they LOVE going to Walt Disney World—as in, OBSESSED!  Having memorized many Disney movie scenes and collected various Disney paraphernalia, they get to live out these films in “real-time”.

Since both of my teens have autism, they perceive time, space and the social realm differently.  They often need more time and explanation to process certain input, especially auditory.

While many parents like to surprise their kids with a grand “Disney vacation reveal” the day before they go, I think my kids would flip out (and not in a good way) if I did this for our first trip. Despite their love of Disney, they need extra supports to thoroughly enjoy their time.

Maybe your family is like mine.

I’ll tell you from personal experience…a little preparation goes a long way to feeling at ease and thoroughly enjoying your vacation at Walt Disney World.

Top 10 things to do BEFORE you go to Walt Disney World

1. Download the Walt Disney World park maps and study them together as a family.

This is our favorite phase of trip planning—dreaming of new attractions and snacks we’d like to try as well as new characters we’d like to meet. When everyone’s input is valued, it creates a sense of personal investment and family bonding in the process.

2. Watch the movies or read books associated with the attractions.

This REALLY helped my daughter: when she was six she climbed my husband like a petrified cat inside the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion ride and refused to go on again that trip.

After watching the movie about the ride, she became invested into the story and the characters. She now wanted to see where it all “happened”, summoning the courage to go back on the Haunted Mansion ride!

3. View website pictures and videos of the resort where you will be staying.

Seeing what the resort has to offer, such as the pool, arcade, dining, room décor, and on-site entertainment (like movie-nights and campfire s’mores) builds excitement and will provide a sense of familiarity when you arrive.

4. Download the MyDisneyExperience App. 

You can show your family all of the Fast Pass+ attractions and meal reservations on your phone before you go and during your trip.

It helps those who are exceptionally time-obsessed (like my son) and keep asking to see what’s next…sort of like a digital visual schedule.

5. If your family members are not used to buses that take guests to the parks, try riding one in your town or watch videos.

Play pretend at home: line up chairs and act out how people behave riding a bus.

If you stay at a Disney resort and taking a bus is out of the question, you can always take your own car to the parks (parking is free for resort guest). Or, you can take an Uber, Lyft or Minnie Van as your own private transportation.

6. Practice for the experience at home.

If nearly a week-long trip seems daunting, try local expeditions first.

Take your family to local festivals, sporting events, theme parks or carnivals. Some young children may need to be “eased into” large crowds for long periods of time to get used to the sensory experience.

Take short staycations to get used to staying in hotels.

How your autistic family members do in these settings will give you a much better sense of what kinds of accommodations are needed at Walt Disney World. Develop appropriate sensory-behavioral plans in the event of a meltdown.

7. Map out quiet places for downtime in the event of sensory overload.

One nice place is the circus tent with tables and couches by Pete’s Silly Sideshow (Fantasyland). Tom Sawyer’s Island might be a nice, quiet place to “unwind” and/or stim to self-regulate.

Consider taking a mid-day breaks from the parks at the resort to swim or nap (even older family members benefit).

Planning to rest for a whole day in the middle of the week is extremely helpful to avoid exhaustion before the vacation is over.

8. Print out your daily itinerary schedule to take with you into the parks.

Put the days and times for Fast Pass attractions, Table Service meals, parades, fireworks, shows, etc. (You can find the anticipated events calendar here.) Be sure to include places to take breaks and the First Aid station (especially helpful if an older adult needs bathroom assistance).

Feel free to add pictures into the form of a visual schedule and laminate it. You can even attach them into a mini-book or key-ring.

9. Make social stories for different aspects of your trip.

Consider making one for each park, the resort, transportation options, dining, buying merchandise, etc. as you feel is needed. These may take some creativity and time to make.

But for some that already rely on these to make it through their daily schedule at home, these will be incredibly beneficial for those who have a hard time with routine interruption in a new place.

10.  Create a sensory packing list.

Start gathering the tools needed not only to prevent sensory overload (i.e. sound-reducing headphones) but also in the event of a meltdown (i.e. food, toy, sensory soother, fidget, etc.).  Brainstorm items that would be good diversions to help with waiting (i.e. electronic games).

Other important items to bring in advance (that many don’t often consider) are autograph books and retractable Sharpie pens. Unbeknownst to me, the trip highlight for my TEENAGERS was meeting the characters and getting their autographs.  I thought they outgrew this, so I didn’t anticipate packing these.

The long lines for meet-n-greets didn’t seem to bother my autistic kids as much as long ride queues with nothing much to see.  Watching other park guests meet and take pictures with their favorite movie characters only fueled their own excitement.

One more bonus tip!

Perhaps one of the most important things you can do before your trip is to review the Walt Disney World policies regarding disability accommodations.  Be sure to download their Planning a Trip to Walt Disney World Resort: A Resource for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

So, there you have it!

With the right planning before your trip, and knowing your child’s sensory needs and accommodations well, you will be on your way to creating long-lasting memories together at the most magical place on earth!

 

I would love to help you plan a magical Disney vacation!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

Sensory solutions for a Disney park trip

Sensory Solutions for a Disney Park Trip

Solutions for Sensory Needs during a Disney Park Trip

In this article I will break down the different challenges and provide solutions for those with sensory needs when they take a trip to a Disney park.  

Take my autistic kids to Walt Disney World?  Are you CRAZY?!

You mean, take someone who has meltdowns when overloaded by crowds and intense sensory stimulation to a place that is crowded and full of intense sensory stimulation?  HA!  Very funny… 

Actually, I am NOT kidding…not one bit.

Okay, just hear me out!

Maybe you think a trip to the see the beloved Disney characters and princesses is out of the question. Or maybe you’re considering resigning yourself to the fact that a trip to Walt Disney World will be just like any other trip to the grocery store where the meltdown is inevitable…

…and you’ll just deal with it.

 

But there is HOPE!

Many people–children and adults alike–have gone to Walt Disney World and had a wonderful time!

The trick is…know your loved one’s sensory needs and triggers well! 

Knowing what kind of experiences your autistic loved one can handle in other settings will help you prepare for the very sensory-stimulating environment of Walt Disney World.

 

Sensory Challenges

Is your loved one hypo-sensitive (seeks out) or hyper-sensitive to (avoids) large crowds, visual stimulation and noise?

Even if someone that craves stimulation finds Disney parks to be a dream-come-true, he or she may suddenly have a meltdown when tired.

Here is a breakdown of things to do by the types of sensitivities and the sensory solutions for a trip to a Disney park:

1. For SOUND sensitivity

This is perhaps the most common sensitivity among those with autism.

Bring soothing tactile devices and sound-barring headphones (for those loud parades, attractions and fireworks).

Map out places where there are quiet places to recharge (Guest Relations can help with that).

2. For TOUCH Sensitivity…

Those that crave physical interaction will LOVE the character greetings. Even Tigger will hug you, the parent, without warning!

If your loved one doesn’t like strangers touching him or her, alert the character handlers (regularly clothed cast members who stand beside the costumed characters). Tell the about his/her tactile needs, particularly whether light touch and a hug is okay or would prefer no touch at all.

3. For TASTE Taste Sensitivity…

Get familiar with the restaurant menus at the parks.

Disney is very good about accommodating diverse dietary needs. But it’s a good idea let them know in advance at dine-in restaurants through the My Disney Experience app or by calling (407) WDW-DINE.

At quick service ask them what is available. (You can always recruit your personal travel advisor/planner like myself to help you with this.)

Another option is to bring your own meals in a small cooler (no glass bottles).

4. For SMELL Sensitivity…

Certain attractions will have artificial scents that add to the immersion-factor.  The most common is a low-intensity water scent on boat rides. But a few attractions give off more potent smells. (Soarin’ has “pleasant nature scents” while Journey into Imagination with Figment at Epcot has a stinky scent).

Of course, the most common outdoor scents will come from food.

If your loved one has an absolute aversion to certain scents, it’s good to know where in the park they come from (feel free to ask questions below in the comments section).

5. For SIGHT Sensitivity…

Is your loved one extremely sensitive to certain visual elements? Are strobe-light effects potential harmful?  Certain attractions have intense flashing lights (Flights of Passage at Animal Kingdom and Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom).

If darkness is a problem, as many attractions are dark rides, consider having your loved one watch “point-of-view” videos of the rides in order to see if they would be willing to try it.

 

Other Special Needs Challenges

For those with LANGUAGE challenges…

Does your loved one have issues communicating through words? 

Bring a visual schedule or augmentative communication device so he or she can adequately express his or her needs.

If your loved one is non-verbal and gets separated from you, it would be very wise to have a plan in place to locate him or her.

For those with SAFETY AWARENESS challenges…

Is autistic loved one a flight risk? 

Consider having a bracelet, lanyard, sticker, badge or a GPS Tracker (like Angel Sense) with your name and phone number in case he or she gets lost. This will greatly help Cast Members locate your loved one.

Consider telling Guest Relations know this is a potential risk when you get the DAS.

Is your loved one prone to full body meltdowns around a mass of people? 

Any cast member will help you with these issues, including helping you find an out-of-way place to calm down and getting the word out to other cast members that your child is missing.

The First Aid station is an option (located between Crystal Palace and Casey’s Corner restaurants near the Main Street and central hub).

For those with BODY-SPACE AWARENESS challenges…

Does your autistic loved one have a hard time understanding the social or safety impact of standing too close to others?  

This is a hard one! Everyone stands so close to one another in lines that the normal “arms-length distance” rule between people flies out the window.

We had to constantly pull our son back because he either stood a few inches too close to people (one person told him to “get back!”) or he is so determined to get to that ride that he practically cuts people in line.

When verbal reminders are not enough, a visual cue or a potential reward for keeping a good distance from others may be warranted. Sometimes having our kids stand behind us and not in front of us helped. Then, it’s up to the people behind THEM to stand an adequate distance.

For those susceptible to MELTDOWN TRIGGERS…

What are situations that bring on a meltdown? 

Everyone, not just those with autism, has their own “tipping point” before they go into “shutdown mode”.

Don’t rush your autistic loved one all over the parks.  You may be risking a meltdown by trying to get all the rides done in one day—most people without sensory can’t do that.

Waiting in line for more than an hour can be a meltdown trigger. Sometimes having something to occupy your child (videos/games an iPhone) may be helpful.

But having the DAS will be a lifesaver, allowing you to wait “outside the line” and do other things (watch a parade, meet characters, eat, etc.) before riding the attraction.

For those with TRANSITION challenges…

Does your loved one have trouble grasping a sense of time, waiting, or moving from one event or setting to another?

If a child has NEVER been to Disney before, they have no idea what to expect. If they LOVE Disney, then the familiarity and associations between movies and rides might be enough to help them get through the park without much prepping.

 

Prep Your Child Before Your Disney Trip

However, if a child has even minor issues moving from one task or place to another and is rigid in their use of time in the “real world”, then I STRONGLY SUGGEST that you prep them about the parks before travel!

Watch attraction videos.

Creating social stories about your overall trip or individual park days.

Have them help plan places to visit and dine.

Watch Disney movies and tie them in to certain attractions.

Study the park maps together.

 

Take Advantage of Disney Accommodations for Autism

Walt Disney World and Disneyland have a wonderful accommodation in place to help with those who have a hard time waiting and understanding time.

The Disability Access Service—or the DAS—serves to allow those with cognitive-sensory differences like autism to wait “outside the line”.  You can get that at any park Guest Relations.

Even though this is incredibly helpful while at the parks, it’s still a very good idea to establish a sensory plan BEFORE traveling. That way,  you can pack the items needed and know exactly how to handle any sensory issues that suddenly arise in the parks.

These sensory-based solutions will ensure everyone’s safety and peace-of-mind for a more relaxing and memorable trip to a Disney Park!

I would love to help you plan a magical Disney vacation!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

Why Our Autism Family Loves Disney

Why Our Autism Family Loves Disney

A Special Place in Our Hearts

There are many reasons why our autism family loves Disney so much.

Just like every other Disney-loving family on earth, we like it for the same reasons: magical stories, fun songs, cool merchandise and a place to meet beloved Disney characters.

For us, as well as for many other families who have autistic children, Disney means much more.  It’s significance stretches far beyond a personal hobby.

It is a tool to motivate person growth…

…the inspiration for creativity and self-expression…

…and respite from a world drowning in a lack of faith in one another.

Disney is a major part of our family’s journey to understanding autism, meeting its challenges, and using it’s gifts toward a fulfilling life.

 

Classic Disney Love

Hard to believe, but Mickey Mouse is 90-years-old. 

His birthday was celebrated by young kids whose generation is perhaps the 6th one to live through a world filled with Disney. 

My baby-boomer mom remembers tuning in every Sunday night to Uncle Walt. She would watch enthralled as he stirred up excitement about his Disneyland project and TV shows. 

In the 80s, I was raised on the Classics (Snow White, Bambi, etc.) when VHS home video tapes came out.  Just like everyone else, I grew up having a fairly stable appreciation for the Disney movies.

But I had nothing in the realm of a full-blown Disney obsession.

And then I had kids.  With autism.

 

A Disney Education

Naturally, like most parents, I would buy the Disney DVDs to watch with my young kids.  It was comforting to know that our love of the movies would be shared and hopefully be something over which to bond throughout the years.  

But my kids’ appreciation for the films took on a totally different meaning. 

My son’s story…

My toddler son would stand in front of the TV and mimic the characters, both in action and language.  Then, with the remote firmly in hand, he would hit play, pause, rewind…again and again. 

I started getting pretty concerned that TV watching would be a dysfunctional activity, turning him into a parrot without the ability to conduct two-way speech interaction. It was hard enough to get him to mimic ME.

But then around the age of 5, he clicked on the closed caption feature.  I realized that by doing this he could follow along with the language.

He actually started speaking and understanding language better by listening to the dialogue, following the visual scene, and then reading off the words. 

Huh!  Perhaps it wasn’t so dysfunctional after all, because now we could understand one another.

My daughter’s story…

My daughter was different.  Both receptive and expressive language have always been harder for her.

She would also want full control of the remote…play, pause, rewind…play, pause, rewind.   

But she was more engaged with the visual aspects of the film.  She often paused much longer to study the film, often to find something funny about the way the characters’ faces froze on screen in very contorted ways. 

Then she had me want to draw them out.

For a while I did this for her. My skills weren’t fantastic, but I was proud of a few.

But at some point, I had enough.  I could not spend hours drawing for her. 

“You do it!” I told her.  Begrudgingly, she did. 

Thus, her passion began for drawing movie figures.  To this day she draws at least 10 different unique characters and scenes, every single day. 

This helps her understand emotions, social intent and language much better than just listening to me drone on.

Disney was the tool to overcome several autism-related challenges. This is a big reason why our autism family loves Disney.

Disney became a life-line connecting me with my kids in ways I hadn’t imagined.

 

Disney Therapy

For them, watching the Disney movies meant learning language and social interaction skills.

Speech therapists often used Disney characters and themes to motivate my kids to learn new skills. Often they would bring out Disney-themed games to teach certain aspects of speech and sentence structure.

Later, my son honed his public speaking skills by role-playing as a Disney park tour guide.

His therapists posted pictures of the Walt Disney World attractions around the hallways. He practiced one-way speech along with two-way communication through Q&A exercises.  Through this he learned how to appropriately interact with others through a passionate topic.

Disney was the motivational tool to promote social-developmental growth in my autistic kids.

Discover the power of Disney to open up worlds for a young man with autism: “

Life, Animated: Disney Lessons and Autism “.

You can find out more about him through the documentary.

 

Ready to Take the Next Leap

I didn’t plan on loving the Disney so much myself. That is, not until we took a Walt Disney World vacation.

It took nearly a year convincing my husband that we could somehow manage to have a good time, despite the fact that I was very unsure myself. 

My kids loved going to science centers, zoos and other family-oriented places. But if something didn’t go their way or they were getting sensory overload, they had “problematic behaviors” such as:

  • ·       throwing themselves on the floor
  • ·       screaming
  • ·       not following direction
  • ·       not able to be redirected
  • ·       running off, etc. 

I had to constantly monitor their movements.  What always promised to be a fun-filled day left me totally exhausted. 

Would going to Walt Disney World possible any different, perhaps even worse?

Then, a very resourceful friend told me about the accommodations that Walt Disney World offered at its parks.  With this information, and the fact that my parents would also go to the parks with us to lend a hand, we summoned the courage to book the trip.

We decided to add extras to our trip, such as character dining and Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutique for my six-year-old daughter.  With fingers-crossed we hoped that living out the Disney movies in the attractions would ensure success.

 

The Magic of Meeting the Mouse in Person

Boy, did it ever! 

My kids behaved so well considering the sensory stimulation that I could hardly believe it. 

I suppose that if Disney worked before at home as a motivational tool, it made sense that they did much better than expected at the “home for Disney”.

Sure, we were all exhausted after long park days.  But having grandparents along who understood my kids’ special needs well was immensely beneficial.

We have since taken more Walt Disney World vacations.  For every trip my kids step out of their comfort zones to try more thrilling attractions.  And their obsession with Disney just grows.

Another reason why we love Disney so much?

Experiencing Disney magic at the park enabled my kids to build self-confidence and self-help skills.

 

Taking the Disney Magic Home

Now that they are teenagers they have developed artistic skills based around their love of the movies and books. 

My son writes fan fiction based on the Kingdom Keeper series.

My daughter creates comics based on her own original take on some Disney characters. 

Vacationing at Walt Disney World is not just a place to have fun. It inspires creativity and family bonding long past our trips. 

That “magical” feeling about being at Disney drove me to stay connected to other moms through various social media sites.

I especially was drawn to other families with special needs looking to plan Disney vacations.  I loved being able to give them advice and encourage their dreams. 

In addition, I dove deep into learning more about the history of Disney parks and all they have to currently offer. 

My heart led me to apply as a travel professional, which is what I am today.

For this I am forever thankful we stepped out of our comfort zones, pushed past our fears and leapt into a new experience. The benefits have been life-changing.

Our love of Disney has inspired us to stretch ourselves developing new skills in new pursuits.

Experience the Magic of Disney for Yourself

So many families with autism have created memories and stronger bonds during their trips to Walt Disney World because they did the same.

They have also witnessed amazing growth in their special needs while on a Disney vacation. Some even progress faster while they visit the parks than weeks in therapy.

Is it time you did, too?

Experience the “Disney magic” on autism for yourself!

It’s especially important for families with special needs to plan strategically based on the needs of your autistic child or adult.  With solid preparation you can mitigate the potential for problems that may occur during your trip. 

Let me guide you toward experiencing the magic. I can offer offering beneficial special needs planning tips and create a customized Disney vacation for your family.

Contact me for a free consultation!

May your vacation wishes come true!