Accessing Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Special Needs Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Serving Scouts with Disabilities

It wasn’t too long ago that those with disabilities were actively excluded from life of mainstream society.  If they didn’t automatically look, think, act or speak like everyone else, they were often shunned. If they were given similar opportunities, they were segregated away from others. Accommodations for special needs Scouts were rare.

Fortunately, thanks to some fiercely passionate parents and other advocates, things have changed.  Those who are physically, intellectually, and neurologically different are now encouraged to participate alongside everyone else in school, sports, band, and other social clubs.

Likewise, Boy Scouts of America encourages its units to welcome youth of all abilities into their troops.

But the journey to full inclusion and rank achievement is not always clear and easy for those with disabilities.

 

Feeling Included

In the past many troops did not feel they had the adequate resources to properly accommodate some potential members.

The issue today is not necessarily the lack of accommodations provided by BSA, but the lack of awareness that they exist, both by troop leadership and parents of special needs Scouts.

Another potential problem could be the lack of willingness of the troop leadership, its members and/or the Scouts parents to push for assistance despite knowing help exists.

It’s for all of these reasons, both past and present, that the Boy Scouts of America created the National Disability Awareness Committee for Special Needs Scouts. It’s mission is to to help all youth who joins its ranks for feel welcomed and included.

Yes, there are some troops that are specifically designed for special-needs Scouts only.  But the organization would argue that those scouts are best served in regular patrols. Everyone benefits by including those with differences.

I heartily agree. That is why my autistic daughter has joined a regular inaugural girls BSA troop.

 

All in the Family

My husband is a Boy Scout “lifer”.  He earned his Eagle Scout rank and received the Vigil Honor of Order of the Arrow. He worked at a few Scout camps and now serves as a troop Scoutmaster and Wood Badge staff.  To say he’s deeply committed to Scouts is an understatement.

 

 

My son also earned his Eagle Scout.  Like his sister he also has autism.  But he started right at age 11 and had a lot of support from leadership. We did not request any special needs accommodations as we felt he was progressing through the ranks well-enough.

My daughter entered Scouts at age 15.  She has greater difficulty understanding auditory information and memorizing the Scout Oath and Law. Due to these conditions, we are seeking accommodations that will enable her to progress at her own comfortable pace and in her learning style.

 

 

I became an Assistant Scoutmaster both to help her and other leaders best serve her. Because our entire family is so involved in Scouts, we are heavily networked to people who will help my daughter succeed.

Despite her challenges, we are committed to helping her forge her own path in Scout as far as she is willing to go. I believe firmly in the power of Scouting to build solid life skills and self-confidence, as we have witnessed with her brother.

(Read my article HERE on why I believe Scouts is the one of the best organizations for those on the spectrum.)

 

A Special Needs Parent’s Role in Scouts

I understand many parents won’t involve themselves at this level, and that’s okay.

But to ensure the success of a youth in Scouts, it’s vital that the parent be a vigilant advocate for his/her child’s entire Scouting lifetime.  

To help me better understand how Scouts BSA accommodates special needs families, not only for myself but other families, I reached out to Julie Hadley.  She is the Disabilities Awareness Committee Chair for our council (Hoosier Trails).

I consider Julie a special education expert not only in Scouts but personally and professionally as well.  She is mom of three, all of whom had a range of educational challenges.  She has also served as a special education teacher since 2007. As she put it, “I have been on both sides of the table for IEP meetings. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

I asked Julie a range of questions related to special needs accommodations in Scouting programs. I believe her answers will help any new Scout and Scouting parent start off on the right foot.

 

Scouts BSA Accommodations Q & A

1. How do parents go about asking for accommodations with their own scout troop?

Parents need to talk to the scoutmaster and troop leadership as soon as their child joins a troop or pack. The way things have been in recent history, parents are not asking for accommodations until almost time for the youth to age-out. Parents are talking to the scoutmaster a month or a few weeks before the youth turns 18, when they see that he is not going to make Eagle (Scout).

 

2. What kinds of accommodations can they ask for?

This absolutely depends on the needs of the scout. What accommodations do they receive at school?  No two scouts are the same, so accommodations are absolutely individualized. My guidance is that parents talk to the scoutmaster and discuss what accommodations the school is using.*

*Side note: Later on, the parents and scout leaders will work on formulating the right accommodations using the Individual Scout Advancement Plan ( BSA-ISP-form.pdf (126 downloads) ).  Bring along your child’s IEP to help figure out the right accommodations with troop leadership.

 

3. How can scouts with disabilities get an extension on the age-requirement to achieve the Eagle Scout rank?

There is a common confusion: an “extension” is not what special needs scouts need.

Special needs Scouts need to complete the form REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY. That registration stays with the council and we approve it as a committee.

Extensions are specific for only extra time and are approved by National. They are difficult to get and the youth has to have some life changing event that they have had no control over. National does not approve many of these.

 

4. How might a special needs parent role be different from a non-special needs parent role in a scout troop?

Special needs parents know all too well that their child is going to need extra support. Like every parent, we volunteer to support what our children get involved with.

Possible roles for special needs parents include: educating troop leaders on what their child needs and educating other youth on those special needs. I have seen parents jump in with both feet and become part of troop leadership.

 

5. What should the leadership of a troop do to ensure full inclusion of the special needs child into a regular troop?

Start with open honest conversations with the parents, asking some of the tough questions. Learn about the disability, and learn what the youth needs or doesn’t need. Troop leadership needs to know what parent expectations are. Troop leadership needs to ask the youth what they want to accomplish in scouts.

 

6. Is training providing for troop leadership to better understand the special needs of their scouts? Who does that training and how do they go about asking for it?

University of Scouting offers special needs training.  University of Scouting happens at various times of the year in our neighboring councils. Classes are taught by volunteers with a lot of experience in that area.

 Training Expo in our council hold special needs classes that are taught every year on various topics. Training Expo occurs every February and class topics are suggested by individuals who volunteer to teach the class.

Troop Leadership and parents are free to contact me and I will help with educating leadership or directing them to someone in their area that have a lot of experience.

Training is always a hot topic when everyone is a volunteer.

 

7. What should be considered when joining a special needs troop (if available)? Is there a link to find them in someone’s local area?

When joining a special needs troop or forming a special needs troop, figure out the primary goal for your child. What experiences do you want for your child?

The best way to find out if we have special needs troops is to call council.

 

8. What are the ways the family of a special needs child can advocate for him/her beyond the troop level?

That’s an interesting question that I’ve never been asked. The best answer I have is to contact our committee and work with the committee.*

*Side note: Those on a Council Disability Committee can serve as an intermediary between the special needs scout and his/her family and troop leadership if a problem arises.  The committee member can assess the situation from all sides including the Scout’s, helping everyone come to a resolution. Sometimes that resolution can be positive if a plan-of-action is put into place long before he/she ages out. But if the Request for Registration Beyond the Age of Eligibility form was not completed, the process can be much harder.

Sometimes if troop leadership is not willing or able to accommodate the requests of the special needs Scout, often he or she moves on to another troop and/or is not able to achieve the highest rank desired.

 

9. Is there a troop assessment instrument to measure how inclusive a troop is of a special needs scout?

There is, not to my knowledge, an assessment like this. This would be interesting and something that would have to be re-evaluated with every change in leadership. For some troops that happens every couple of years…and some troops it is MANY years between changes.

 

10. Where can special needs families go to get more resources to help meet their needs?

There are several special needs and scouts webpages. National (Scouts BSA) has resources listed. There are special needs trainings with the national committee at Philmont (New Mexico) every summer.

 

How to Access this Important Accommodation

The most important lesson is that it’s best to file the REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY form as soon as a special-needs Scout joins a troop.  For my daughter, I plan to do this very soon.

To get the process started, be sure to follow these steps:

1. Contact your council’s disability committee to start the paperwork: registration-beyond-the-age-of-eligibility-1.pdf (92 downloads)

2. Schedule a meeting with parents, Scoutmaster, committee member and Scout.

3. Parents and Scoutmaster(s) work together to complete the paperwork.

4. Submit the paperwork to the committee member.

5. Decision will be made by the committee to accept the form.

 

Rely on the expertise and guidance of those in the Disability Committee of your council throughout the years your child will be in Scouts.  They represent the best of Scouting because they are committed to making sure your special needs Scout has the opportunity to grow and achieve great things among those who care.

 

For more information, visit the Disabilities Awareness page on the Scouts BSA website.

For disability assistance with the Hoosier Trails Council, visit their Facebook page “Hoosier Trails-Disability Awareness”.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

NOTE: Our summer camp experience has been with Boy Scouts of America.  Many of these tips could also apply to autistic youth in other scouting groups, such as Girl Scouts, American Heritage Girls or Trail Life USA.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

Those with autism often need special assistance to get ready for a week of Scout camp.  In this article you will learn about the important autism preparations for Scout camp.

 

I did my best to help my autistic daughter prepare for her first scout camp experience. We used the BSA Scouts packing list.  We asked questions about the camp.  We relied on my Scoutmaster husband for advice.

 

It was only a few months since our inaugural troop for girls was founded in the newly structured Scouts BSA (formerly known as Boy Scouts).  So, we didn’t have much preparation for attending camp besides learning some basic first aid skills and discussing what we should pack.

 

Luckily, we have two Scout leaders who have prepared their own sons for Scout camp for many years.  It was a blessing that they knew their way around camp, the daily schedule, and merit badge requirements.

 

My autistic son did very well at camp as a Scout and now works there in the kitchen. I was reassured that my autistic daughter would be fine.  Since she has different challenges, I thought it best to take extra measures to help her and the staff know the accommodations she needs.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

The first thing a Scout learns is the motto: “Be Prepared”.  That’s exactly the mentality required for a week at summer camp.

 

Here are important autism preparations for Scout camp:

 

Before Camp

 

Choose activities your youth is familiar and/or has a very keen interest in doing (STEM, Scoutcraft, aquatics, shooting sports, etc.). When engaged in an activity for which he or she has a passion or skill, this will alleviate some concerns about being in a new and strange environment.  My daughter is very familiar with archery and chose to do that with the other girls in the troop.  She ended up with the highest score in the class, of which she is extremely proud.  She will now associate summer camp as a fun and positive experience and want to go again next year.

 

Consider staying at least one night (preferably the first) with your child. This is especially important for the first year of attending summer camp. I was able to figure out with what exactly my daughter needed help and to guide her to different activity locations.  If your child has never been away from home for an overnight, then I encourage you to stay during the week. If you can’t sleep overnight, ask about Day passes so you can check in a time or two during the week.

 

Prepare an “Accommodations Card”.  I created a short list of accommodations for my daughter so camp staff could communicate with her and meet her needs appropriately. I laminated the printed cards and handed them out to each person with whom she had regular contact.  They were grateful to know to best help when she was frustrated.

Here is a template I made—you can alter it to fit your child’s needs:  Scout-Camp-Accommodations-TEMPLATE.pdf (99 downloads)

 

Let troop leaders know how your child handles frustration. Help them know the difference between an anxiety attack, a meltdown and willful disobedience.  Create a “meltdown plan” (for safety reasons for self and others) for troop leaders—write it down on a card and laminate.   If you will not be with your child at camp, establish a communication plan. For example, many camps have very limited WiFi service. Ask troop leaders when and by what method is best to communicate if there is an issue at camp.

 

Create a picture schedule and/or social story of the camp routines. Get the camp map and your child’s scheduled activities the week before.  Go over this routine a few times with your child before leaving for camp.

 

Complete the merit badge worksheets for the activities your child will actually do at camp.  It will be helpful to do these at least a week or two before camp. That way he/she can recall the information that is heard in the class itself and be able to answer some of the questions. If a class is heavy lecture (like First Aid), bring along a tape recorder; have a notepad to take notes (ask a peer to take notes is he/she can’t); or perhaps follow along in the Scout book.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout CampGet ready for the swim test!  For any aquatic activity, every scout needs to perform a swim test.  Even if he/she has achieved “Blue Swimmer” status already, the camp requires each camper and adult leader to demonstrate proficiency—every year!  This is where your child may have issues.  I strongly urge you to practice the stroke and lap requirements in a lake before camp.  (If going to a lake is out of the question, practice in a pool.) If your child is too overwhelmed with swimming in a lake and refuses to perform the swim test, then she/he cannot do any of the aquatic merit badges (kayaking, canoeing, etc.).  If that’s the case, another merit badge or open activity can be chosen. Create a social story about what it’s like and what to do for the swim-test.

 

Make sure the shoes and boots your child wears are very comfortable.  Wear them in before going (especially try to hike in them over rough terrain for at least an hour).  Have back-up shoes that are waterproof.  Water-shoes are fine to walk around in, but if it’s raining all day, your feet will stay pruny ALL DAY.  Not good.

 

Did I mention there is LOTS of walking at camp?  I mean, miles per day!  And with a semi-heavy day bag on your child’s back all day.  If you can prepare with a few hiking excursions or walking exercise, the better off.  Bring electrolyte drinks and water to prevent leg cramps and dehydration.

 

Make the camp aware of any medical, dietary or sensory issues on the application. When you get there, alert the kitchen staff to food intolerances. Reserve an appointment with a physician as soon as your child is registered for camp.  Be sure to pack the necessary medications and sensory items.  If your child needs medicine for anxiety, ask if the troop leader can keep and administer those meds right in camp instead of at the nurse’s station. If you keep food at the camp, be sure to seal it up tight!  The mice had a feeding frenzy on our snack food while we slept.

 

Don’t forget a sensory kit!  If your child has ANY sensitivity to noise, bring those noise-cancelling headphones!  The loudest setting was the dining hall.  These staffers love to pump up the volume with their songs and skits and table-thumping. It gets everyone enthused but the noise—even for me—was almost unbearable.  Bring any other sensory-calming item if necessary (like a weighted blanket for nighttime sleeping).

 

 

During Camp

 

Have a designated peer helper (“buddy”) who is kind and conscientious. If they are in the same merit badge classes together, have them walk to and from those class together.  They can even share a tent and help your child get a day-bag ready. Ask one of the scout leaders to assist in getting your child to a class if no one else in their troop goes.

 

 

Walk through the camp areas on the day of arrival with all scouts. Follow the route the week’s schedule, starting with the first activity, then the second, etc.  Have your child follow along with the picture schedule and map you made beforehand.

 

Help your child prepare a day-bag.  Create a picture schedule of all items that should go into it. Your child should have a small first aid kit, notetaking pads and pencil, swim gear, sunscreen, bug spray, a flashlight, and possibly merit badge worksheets to work on while at camp. Ask your scoutmaster or assistant to help check the day-bag every day to make sure all necessary items are included.

 

Show the Accommodations cards to every activity counselor.  Explain to them how your child may react to unfamiliar requests, events or settings (no prior approval needed). Have a troop leader do this if you cannot.

 

Some challenges we encountered

 

With the rain and thunder they moved the kayaking class to the indoor dining hall. My daughter did fine with the transition.

 

When the sun came out, our leader suggested doing the swim tests at the lake. My daughter has been lake swimming before but freaked her out because she wasn’t expecting a test.  It took her 30 minutes to put her suit on and come down to the beach. She needed time to transition and accept this inevitability.  After much persuasion she managed to get in the water and achieve “blue swimmer” in order to complete her kayaking merit badge.

 

Hence, this is the reason I stress practicing the swim test in a lake or making a social story before coming to camp!

 

Another problem was her boots.  While she never complained about them at home, she never had to walk in them for several miles, either!  By the end of the first day, I was trading boots with her because she had blisters forming.

 

I highly recommend doing some preliminary hiking or walking in camp boots or waterproof shoes at home before wearing them at camp.  Or bring along enough extra shoes that are comfortable.

 

 

Some positive highlights

 

My daughter loved the Pioneer Rendezvous.  It was an after-dinner event with Native American flute playing (which my daughter got to try), kettle corn and root beer, leather-making and iron-branding, rifle demonstrations, atlatl throwing and just enjoying the company of others.

 

Take advantage of the optional fun activities in the evening. This will make the homesickness less and the willingness to stick it out at camp stronger.

 

I am very pleased that this camp goes above-and-beyond to make an unforgettable experience.  Honestly, I wished—momentarily—that I was young again.  I suppose I’ll settle for being an Assistant Scoutmaster…

 

The staffers were not only extremely accommodating but inclusive of my daughter.  They welcome all kids with open-arms and are excited to have them be in Scouts…which is why I believe Scouts is so fantastic for youth on the spectrum.

 

Keep in mind that those with autism need special preparation for the Scout camp experience.  With the right mindset and preparation, a Scout camp experience will not only be loads of fun but will help your autistic youth grow in self-confidence and self-reliance.

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

SENSORY TIPS FOR A ZOO VISIT

 

Does your child love animals but you are unsure about taking him or her to the zoo?  In this article you will find important sensory trips for a zoo visit that will be hopefully help you and your whole family have fun there!

 

My autistic kids have always loved animals. Farm animals. Zoo animals. Neighborhood animals.  Zoos are naturally attractive to young kids and more so for those kids who have an intense fascination with animals.  But it’s very important to consider the impact of the all the noises, sights, smells, and sounds of the zoo on a child with autism.

 

 

AREN’T ANIMALS THE BEST?

 

They are loyal and love on us. They ease our fears and keep us grounded. They connect with us despite the communication gap.

 

Many autistic individuals find comfort in the presence of animals. Whether it’s a pet at home, livestock on a farm, or a service-dog, animals bring amazing benefits to the lives of those who often feel frustrated by a lack of understanding from other humans.

 

So, visiting a zoo seems like the most natural place to go for an autistic child, teen or adult.

 

Except that not all zoos are created equal.

 

Just because a zoo has animals doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to be a great experience.  Other people will be there, too…LOTS of people!  The potential for sensory overload can be high, depending on the level of crowds and the type of sensory environment zoo architects have designed.

 

To date (summer 2019), only three zoos in the entire country are certified autism centers.  Several may be “autism friendly” by having some sensory kits available or special “autism awareness” days.

 

Our nearby zoo is not deemed a “certified autism center”. In fact, the Indianapolis Zoo had ZERO assistance for anyone with sensory-cognitive issues. No sensory guidelines, no sensory kits, no calming room, no wait-assistance…nothing.  Even one staff member expressed her concern about having to leave the zoo early because her autistic nephews were having sensory meltdowns. (Sounded like my kids’ first zoo trip!)  Needless to say, I was disappointed with their lack of autism accommodations.

 

Even so, we still made up our minds to go.

 

And that is exactly what most autism families do.  Despite a lack of accommodations, they will still visit their favorite places!

 

My autistic daughter and I visited the Indianapolis Zoo on a day that was dry and sunny with low-crowd level predicted.  We ended up having a fantastic time.

 

However, the last time we went—when my kids were toddlers—the trip to the zoo was just about a disaster.

 

Through lessons of my past and most recent trips, I hope to provide some guidelines that will ensure a more fun and worthwhile trip to the zoo.

I will also provide tips to empower you to advocate for your autistic loved one.

 

SENSORY TIPS TO CONSIDER BEFORE MAKING A ZOO VISIT

 

You have picked the date.  A zoo trip is now in the works!

 

Before you think about “winging” a visit to a zoo, consider all potential scenarios during your time there.  In other words, at what point will you and your autistic loved one be tired? Hungry? How will a sensory-overload episode be handled? What happens if you lose sight of your loved one?  Here are some sensory tips for a zoo visit:

 

1. First check the zoo website for accommodation information.

Is the zoo you are visiting at least “autism friendly”?  The Indianapolis Zoo website had no link or any mention at all of having accommodations for those on the spectrum. They did host an autism awareness day with a local agency.  (But one day is clearly not enough).  You may need to call the zoo directly if they have anything at all to assist those with autism. Knowing this will determine next steps to prepare.

 

2. Decide how much time and money you will spend at the zoo.

To save some money, I recommend you buy tickets in advance, which are often cheaper.  There may be some coupons at given times, but no deep discounts were available by having the Medicaid-based Access Pass. We entered the parking lot 15 minutes before opening.  No parking lot attendant was at the booth to take the parking fee, so we saved money by getting there early.  Other questions to ask yourself: How tired does your autistic child get walking around for several hours?  How often do you eat?  Are you wanting to save money and bring your own food in?

 

3. Download the zoo map.

You may want to study the amenities, exhibits and other accommodations in order to plan out a visit-strategy. What are your child’s favorite animals? If he or she loves giraffes, then don’t miss out on the feeding opportunities. Often this requires a separate ticket and designated feeding times at most zoos (including the Indianapolis Zoo).  Is he or she crazy about dolphins? Don’t forget to get a separate free ticket at the entrance for the show. Plan your visit around those important feeding or show times.

 

4. Figure out if it’s worth spending extra for the attractions.

Most zoo admissions include some limited animal interaction and shows.  But they don’t include rides and other things like animal feedings.  Indianapolis Zoo has the TAP (Total Adventure Package), which is an extra $12. We found it worth purchasing it in advance.  Instead of buying one-time-access tickets we had a wristband. It allowed us unlimited access to those extras, so we could go on rides again and again. We got more than our money’s worth out of it!

 

5. Research or inquire about the dietary offerings at the zoo.

Most snacks, I noticed, were not gluten-free or casein-free. If your child is not a big salad-eater, then perhaps consider bringing in your own snacks and meals.

 

6. Pack a sensory kit.

Some zoos may have sensory kits to offer families. But a safe bet is to assume they don’t. I highly recommend headphones for those with sound-sensitivities.  It was at the dolphin show years ago that we realized our autistic son’s limits to loud music and noise. He had a complete meltdown during the show, so we left early.

 

7. Bring someone along to assist.

If you have more than one autistic child and/or a child that is a toddler, preschooler or elementary-age, it may be helpful to have an extra pair of hands. Having a 1-to-1 ratio is best. My kids are almost adults, so that ratio is not necessary. Having another responsible adult is beneficial for other reasons (which I’ll get into later in this article).

 

8. Check the weather forecast.

Plan your trip accordingly.  How much cold or heat can your child tolerate?  What about rain?  Most zoos I know have the majority of their exhibits outdoors. The Indianapolis Zoo has two large indoor areas—Oceans and Orangutan Center—but would be crowded during a rainstorm.  Also, animals tend to be more active on cooler days and early in the morning, especially because zookeepers are feeding them.  The park is also less crowded then.

 

            

 

SENSORY TIPS DURING YOUR ZOO VISIT

 

Finally…a perfect day to visit the zoo has come! You feel prepared enough, maybe pre-purchased tickets.  Here are some sensory tips for a visit to the Indianapolis Zoo—although many other zoos have similar exhibits which you may find relevant.

 

1. Animal experiences…

Besides passively viewing the animals you can also actively interact with them in a more meaningful way.  The experiences vary in intensity.

Calming:

  • Petting a shark. No, REALLY! The Indianapolis Zoo has very large shallow shark touch pool in an indoor atmosphere that is very peaceful. It’s relaxing watching their graceful movements in water. The Oceans exhibits are by far the most calming.

 

  • Animals in the Plains and Forest areas—elephants, bears, giraffes and tigers—are slow-moving but fascinating to watch.

 

  • The orangutans are altogether special, often leaning their heads against the windows for a very up-close-and-personal encounter.

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits    

 

Intense:

  • Feeding the lorikeets. This was our favorite animal encounter, so much we did it twice. Using our TAP access we fed them a liquid solution out of a little cup, which they licked.  One moved up my daughter’s arm to top of her safari hat in search of food.  We couldn’t stop smiling and laughing!  On the other hand, they can be very loud, especially when they perch on your shoulder and chirp right in your ear!

 

  • We also hand-fed a giraffe and flamingoes.

 

  • In terms of animal observations, the most active were the lemurs. They proved to be very amusing to watch, thwarting the zookeeper’s efforts to corral them back inside by constantly escaping.

 

  • The dog show was lively. There was enough space for seating and it was shaded. It was hard to discern what the presenters were saying with loud music playing in the background.  (Headphones recommended)

 

  • The dolphin show, while very enjoyable, was perhaps the most intense experience with music that was a bit loud and very crowded with spectators. (Headphones recommended)

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits        

 

2.  Rides…

Slow-moving rides—like gondola systems and boat rides—tend to be relaxing experiences. Train rides can be both relaxing and intense at the same time. The greatest difficulty would be waiting in lines.

Calming:

  • The Skyline is the most relaxing, as long as everyone in the party can handle gliding 50 feet in the air. Although it was intended to observe the orangutans swing from massive heights, we didn’t see any outside. It is mostly to be enjoyed as a slow-moving ride above the zoo and skyline of downtown Indianapolis.

 

  • The train was relaxing but a bit more intense. A voice on a loudspeaker provided a “backstage tour” of the zoo. Sit in the back of the train to avoid the loud whistle in the front.

 

  • Compared to those at amusement parks, the Kombo Coaster would be considered a “kiddie coaster” (so not THAT intense). There were no lines for the ride during the entire time of our visit. So, if your child is a sensory-seeker and meets the height requirement, this would be a perfect attraction to ride again and again with the TAP.

 

  • The carousel appeared to be more intense than calming, considering it was placed in a more visible place in the zoo with higher crowds. (We did not ride this attraction, so I cannot comment on the volume of the music.)

 

 

ADVOCATE FOR YOUR LOVED ONE’S SENSORY NEEDS

 

If the zoo you visit has NO special accommodations for those with cognitive-sensory needs, then you’ll have to advocate for your autistic child or other family member.

Here are some suggestions that might work for you:

 

1. Consider having someone to be a “line placeholder” if necessary.

The Indianapolis Zoo does not have a “wait outside the line” accommodations. We waited 40 minutes for both the train and Skyliner rides.  That may be entirely too long for some on the spectrum.  Some zoos might have line accommodations—check in advance.  I suggest you let someone at the ticket booth know you will have a placeholder in line (that extra person you bring along) while you wait nearby with your child.  Or…you could always ask a stranger if they can hold your place.  (Never hurts to ask.). Ask guest services at the zoo entrance what they can do to help you.

 

2. Create a small laminated card that explains your autistic child’s needs and maybe how they can help.

Sometimes it’s necessary to convey your needs in a non-verbal way with staff.

 

3. Make staff aware if your child is a “runner”.

If your child has a lack of personal safety and runs off, be sure to alert zoo staff at guest services as well as at each exhibit. They usually have personal radios to communicate with one another in the event your child goes missing. Have your child wear identification with your phone number.

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit       

 

PRECIOUS MEMORIES MADE AT THE ZOO

 

Some zoos have a very spacious feel and are better designed to handle more crowds, especially if they have very wide walking paths. The Indianapolis Zoo is one such place that can accommodate many people without making you feel claustrophobic.

 

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, while one of my favorites, has very narrow walking paths which can create bottlenecks and tight spaces. Recognize your child’s ability to handle crowds. Watch videos of the zoo you want to see to get a better sense of space.  This may affect your choice in which zoo you do end up visiting.

 

Zoos can be both peaceful and thrilling experiences all at once.  Sensory-seekers love the hands-on interactions with the animals and the rides, while sensory-avoiders can just observe them play.  Just be sure to do your research before you go.  And if your autistic loved one has had enough, try again another time.

 

Our family has continued to go to a zoo year-after-year despite meltdowns. Every trip to has been better than the one before it. I loved watching their progress on outings like this.

 

It takes time to become acclimated after recognizing how your autistic loved one reacts to the sensory environment of a zoo.  I encourage you to just appreciate the smiles and joy felt by your kids watching and playing with their favorite animals!

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

 

Consider planning a weekend getaway to Indianapolis. Check out my article on making the most of a trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum! 

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

I dare you to ride the Voyage!

Thinking of trying out an amusement park with your autistic child?

 

Consider Holiday World in southern Indiana. It’s the perfect family getaway, even for special needs families. Discover the accommodations available in this autism guide to Holiday World.

 

Some of the best things are in the middle of nowhere…literally.

 

Rising out of the hills of southern Indiana in the small village of Santa Claus (yes, THAT “Santa Claus”) stand gravity-defying giant steel and wooden structures.

 

Roller coasters, to be exact.

 

Like the Griswold family making a pilgrimage to their beloved Wally World in the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, many residents of the surrounding Midwest states make the annual journey to Holiday World.

Meet Santa in the summer!

 

But it’s not just the roller coasters that draw them.  Holiday World is family-owned and designed specifically for the whole family in mind, including very small children.

 

Its whimsical holiday-themed lands celebrate Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. It’s probably the only place in the world that kids can greet Santa Claus outside of the Christmas season.  It’s a mix of old-fashioned carnival rides, world-renowned roller coasters, and one big water park—Splashin’ Safari.

 

We usually come to Holiday World in May before Memorial Day, so even on a Saturday the lines for the rides were not too long. For this reason, we never considered getting a “Ride Boarding Pass” before. But I wanted to conduct a bit of research into how it was used and whether it was truly helpful for those on the autism spectrum.

 

Holiday World is an “autism friendly” amusement park.  By my experience, hopefully you can gain some valuable insight into planning your own visit to Holiday World with your autism family.

 

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World Accommodations

 

Before I even left the house, I made sure to dig into their accommodations policy.  Considering that they have a “Calming Room” and a “Ride Boarding Pass” for those who cannot wait in long lines, I would personally designate this park as “autism friendly”.  I wanted to test that out when I arrived.

 

We got there early considering we live in Eastern Standard Time and Holiday World is in Central Standard Time.  They allow people into the parks 30 minutes before they “rope drop” the area to the main attractions. The kiddie rides near the entrance were actually running before official opening.

 

Past the ticket takers to the left is “Holiday World Services” where you can ask for the “ride boarding pass” and any other accommodation needed.  We did not have to present any evidence of diagnosis.  They were very eager to accommodate and explained how it was used.

Special needs boarding pass for attractions    Special needs accommodation pass   Boarding pass instructions and procedures

 

The purpose of the “ride boarding pass” is to assist guests in wheelchairs who cannot move through the queue or those who cannot wait in a typical line. No more than 4 people in the party can use this accommodation.  Guests must use the exit to access the attraction. You can only get one return-time at any given time. We were told we would either (a) be let on the ride immediately or (b) be given a return time.

 

For our first ride we were neither allowed immediate access nor given a return time. It took about 5 minutes for staff to acknowledge us and then another 20 minutes—standing in the hot sun—before we were permitted to ride. My autistic teens were upset with this arrangement. My son was embarrassed that we were not walking through the standard queue.  Fortunately, they gave us our first choice of seating after they apologized profusely.

 

I got the sense that the “boarding pass” was mostly originally designed for those with physical disabilities whose wheelchairs cannot move through the queues.  I don’t know if they really accommodate those with strictly sensory-cognitive issues.   I would have been happy to have been promptly acknowledged and then given a return time to come back later.

 

After that ride my kids were adamant that we stand in a regular line like everyone else. It turned out to be a 45-minute wait.  Oh well…at least we were in the shade.

 

Unfortunately, Holiday World does not have signs indicating how long wait times are for each attraction.  It also does not have signs indicating which rides accommodate those with autism or other disabilities and where to go (like Disney parks do).  With the “ride boarding pass” handy, however, you know exactly which attractions allow return-times.

 

Your autism guide to a fun-filled family adventure

 

1. Know your child’s time-limit for waiting.

If your child can wait up to 30 minutes or more then you will be fine without needing to use the “ride boarding pass”. If it’s less, be sure to grab it from Services.

 

2. Ask for a return time right away.

When you use the boarding pass, be sure to ask the ride attendant immediately and politely whether you can go right away or need a return time. Just standing there hoping they see you may not work in your favor. Flag them down if necessary.

 

3. Assess the wait time by observing the pace of lines.

When you get to the ride, take a few minutes to observe the speed of the queue. See how many ride operators are attending guests. The Scarecrow Scrambler did not seem to have a long queue, but it was moving very slowly with only one attendant.  Many rides seem to only have one attendant, in fact.  Be sure to ask for a return time for attractions with slow moving or long queues and with only one attendant.

 

4.  Take advantage of conveyor-type attractions.

Rides that are on conveyor systems and/or hold more people in the vehicle (roller/water coasters, water rides, dark rides, etc.) tend to have faster queues than those that can only get a small group of people on at one time. You may not need to use the “ride boarding pass”. On the other hand, be aware that lines for certain seats on the roller coasters will be extra-long.  If your autistic child is dead-set on riding at the very front or very back, warn him or her that it will take longer. Time the wait for middle-seat lines, then multiply by 3, if you need to use a visual timer while waiting in line.

 

5. On hot afternoons, head to the shady area attractions with little or no waits.

On particularly hot days most people head to the water-park. This leaves the rest of the park with little or no wait for their attractions. Head to the areas that have more shade, such as 4th of July, Halloween, and Holidog’s Funtown (for younger kids). Wait times were 20 minutes or less; for most rides we got on the next time around.

 

6. Take advantage of their “calming room”.

Holiday World has a “Calming Room” at the First Aid Station located at the entrance to Splashin’ Safari. If you anticipate needing a place for your child to relax after intense sensory stimulation—or gets upset if his or her favorite ride is down at the moment—this is a great amenity for families needing a break.

Autism calming room at Holiday World It is first-come, first-served but you may not be waiting at all for the space. This large room has sound-proof panels, a padded floor mat, couches, bean bags, rocking chairs, dimmed lighting, and a tent.

The only way you would know it’s here, however, is by asking Services where it’s located or finding that information on their website beforehand.  There is no sign pointing out that a “Calming Room” is available there. It’s not even in the Park Map & Information guide. Most autism families most likely don’t know it’s even available.

 

7.  Bring your own sensory tools.

You will need to bring personal sensory tools such as noise-cancelling headphones, fidgets, or music.  Holiday World does NOT provide these items for you to borrow, so don’t leave home without them!  The Calming Room does have a port for you to plug in for special music that soothes your child and allows them to hear it through the room speakers.

 

8. Take a break to see the shows or meet-and-greet some characters.

Grab a Show Guide at the entrance to what and when they are playing. Santa’s Storytime Theater and Hoosier Celebration Theater are well-shaded areas if you want to beat the heat.

 

9. Go to the park on  less-crowded weekdays.

For fewer crowds, I recommend going during the middle of the week during the summer as well as before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Many seasonal passholders come during the weekend, so if you can, try to come on those less expensive “off-days”.

 

10. Check out the gluten-free meal options.

If you have someone on a gluten-free diet, you can visit “George’s Gluten-free Pizza and Snacks” at the 4th of July area. Here you'll find gluten free optionsCheck out the list of allergen-free and gluten-free options here at this link. Consider eating before 11am and between 2pm-5pm for less wait for special orders.

 

11. Before you go, download the Accessibility Guide to get a sense of what each attraction is like.

To see if your child can handle the roller coasters and other ride-based attractions at Holiday World, I highly recommend you watch the Point-of-View videos on YouTube. (Click on the links below to watch a few.).

Sensory-Intense Attractions

 

Here are my two favorite coasters at Holiday World…which also happen to be the most intense:

1. The Voyage

The Voyage is the #3 top-rated wooden roller coaster in the world (TripSavvy). Aptly named, it is designed to make you feel like a pilgrim crossing the Atlantic in a hurricane, complete with the ability to make even the most die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts a bit motion-sick. (The back rows may enhance that likelihood of throwing up over the side.).

I consider myself a roller-coaster aficionado, and the Voyage is the most intense roller coaster I have ever experienced.  I go on it every time I visit! Love it!

Sensory Experience: extremely intense—body-jarring/bumpy; very loud sounds from the coaster on the track; very high heights; very fast; “windy” sensation; few brief dark tunnels; may or will induce motion sickness. Anything not tied down will be lost, including noise-blocking headphones!  Terrific for those sensory-seekers that get a thrill from roller coasters.

 

Challenge yourself to ride this super-charged coaster

2. The Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is the first steel launch-winged coaster in the world. It explodes out of the gate to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, immediately going into an inverted vertical loop (aka…upside-down).

To say this is “thrilling” is an understatement. With feet dangling in mid-air you feel like you are flying like a devil-bird. Unlike the wooden roller coasters, this one is a smooth ride.

My daughter would not go on the Voyage after experiencing the Raven (another wooden coaster) but this one she really liked. I can handle the left side better than the right side of the coaster with the slow inverted turn at the end (get queasy on the right side).

Sensory Experience: moderately intense—very fast launch; smooth ride; high heights; several upside-down turns; may induce motion sickness. Terrific for sensory seekers not afraid of upside-down roller coasters and heights. 

 

Splashin' Safari is terrific for water-lovers

 

3. Splashin’ Safari

There are plenty of play areas for little ones at this water park as well as a giant wave pool and some terrific water coasters like the Wildebeest and Mammoth (for which you can use the “ride boarding pass”). If your autistic child just absolutely loves waterparks, then he or she will have a blast here.

Life-jackets are available on a first- come, first-served basis at the wave pool for children and adults (with chest sizes up to 52”).  If you have an autistic adult with you and he or she is too big for their sizes, bring your own if necessary.

Unfortunately, we have always skipped Splashin’ Safari. My kids prefer the land-rides and sometimes weather has not always cooperated for being in water.

Sensory Experience: Sadly, I cannot review it from a sensory point-of-view. If you have ever been to a large waterpark like Great Wolf Lodge, then you have a sense of what it’s like…only outdoors, more to do, and in an even bigger area. Many people stay all day here and skip the land-rides.  Be sure to watch point-of-view videos out there of their water-based attractions (see previous links).

 

Autism Friendly?

 

For the most part…YES.

Holiday World does offer some nice amenities to those who can’t wait in long lines, need a sensory break, or have a special diet.  They were eager to accommodate when they could.

 

On the other hand…NO.

We needed to advocate a little more using our “ride boarding pass”.  In addition, their accommodations are not always apparent to the first-time guest or even those who have been coming a while like myself.

I highly recommend you check out their website for more information before you go. Hopefully, this autism guide to Holiday World has alleviated some of your concerns in that regard as well.

 

You'll love the old-fashioned carousel!

Why I love Holiday World

The amusement park is unique in that it provides several FREE items: free drinks, free sunscreen, free parking, and free WiFi.   It’s wonderful that they use preventative measures against sunburn and dehydration and make having fun affordable.

The price of admission depends on day of the week and month, ranging from $29.99 to $49.99 on summer weekends.

I love Holiday World! I dearly appreciate this park for trying to accommodate different needs and for the variety of attractions that will surely please everyone.

 

I know you will, too! 

Water Tower at Holiday World

 

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

Involving Autistic Kids in Travel Planning

Involving Autistic Kids in Travel Planning

Why Plan with Your Special Needs Child

There are several reasons why it’s best to consider involving autistic kids in travel planning, especially if one or more in the family have special needs.

In this article I’ll outline the biggest things you should and should not do when you get ready for a trip in light of the challenges that autism often brings.

Surprise!

Have you seen those videos in which very excited parents prepare to reveal a huge surprise to their family and friends?

Actually, I am NOT talking about those gender reveal parties.

I’m talking about those videos showing parents springing the news on their unsuspecting kids that they are about to go to Walt Disney World.  And not in a few months… RIGHT NOW!

They wake their kids out of a dead-sleep, telling them to hurry up and get dressed. But they don’t tell them why just yet.

By the tone and flurry of activity you would think that a national emergency has been declared and they are forced to evacuate immediately. Some kids look dazed and scared.

When their parents finally let them in on the secret, some are very excited while others continue to look very perplexed.

It’s cute to watch their reactions, but…

If only those kids had autism…I thought.  What kind of reaction would those parents get then?

I imagine that my autistic kids would be thrilled to go to Disney. But if they were given no warning about what’s happening, things would NOT go down well.

If my parents did that to me as a kid, even if I was excited about the idea, my anxiety would probably go through the roof.

If your think your autistic loved one would NOT exhibit that “joyfully thrilled” reaction so many parents anticipate seeing on their kids’ faces when they reveal their “surprise-vacation”, then this article is for YOU!

 

Special Travel Planning Challenges with Autism

Grand vacation surprises the night before are often not a good idea for many on the spectrum.  When it comes to planning a vacation, families with autism would do better to involve everyone in the process from start to finish.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you start dreaming of your next vacation. Involving autistic kids in travel planning is crucial to this process.

Sudden major events, even happy ones like vacations, can trigger big feelings.

Sudden transitions involve too much information and sensory input in a very short span of time.  For many this can trigger feelings like anxiety or anger …which trigger behaviors that may be harmful to self and others.

  • DON’T neglect thinking about the potential issues that could come from throwing a surprise.

 

  • DO tell your child where you have been dreaming of visiting for vacation. Ask him or her where he or she would like to go.

 

An autistic child invested in the planning process will feel more in-control in this new environment.

Many on the spectrum like to know what the expectations are of the places they visit.

My kids watched Disney park planning films over and over.  My son poured over the park maps to find certain attractions.  We played Disney games, watched Disney films and sang Disney songs.  My kids were INVESTED in the process.  By the time we arrived, my kids could relax and enjoy themselves because they had “been there before”.

  • DON’T leave them out of the initial planning.

 

  • DO watch planning videos, study park maps, and get psyched-up together! Make it fun!

 

You can truly discover what your child can or can’t handle.

Looking back, I wish that I had showed my younger daughter point-of-view videos of the rides at Walt Disney World. We might have avoided some bad experiences at certain attractions, like the Haunted Mansion.

In the “stretching room” she begged to be picked up, and then proceeded to climb my husband like a cat. She had a meltdown in the middle of a very crowded room.

  • DON’T just guess what you think your autistic child can handle, too. Don’t just hope that things will be okay.

 

  • DO allow your child time to explore places through videos and to express their desire to avoid certain things before you go.

 

You may neglect some important accommodation considerations without your autistic child’s involvement.

Getting them involved can trigger awareness of the kinds of accommodations that are necessary.

Maybe after viewing videos of certain resorts and studying their maps you get a better sense of knowing what accommodations to ask for (for example, close to pool, away from stairs, lower level, type of bed, etc.). From park maps you can locate the quiet spots for a sensory break.

If you know your autistic child will not want to ride an attraction but everyone else does, then you can use the Rider Switch option at the Disney parks.

  • DON’T forget about creating an “accommodations plan” based on the different needs of your autistic child. This includes sensory toys and finding safe spaces on the map.

 

  • DO ask for help or special requests when you get there. It never hurts to ask with kindness. Most places love to go the “extra mile” to help their guests!

Read more about planning a Disney vacation with someone with autism.

You can bond over the vacation planning experience!

This is my favorite part of the whole planning process…the anticipation felt by everyone in the family! It’s exciting to choose the destination, the resort, the parks, the attractions, the dining experiences, as well as any little extras that you didn’t think about but someone else did.

When everyone’s ideas are considered, then everyone feels valued and important.

  • DON’T downplay or ignore the contributions of anyone. If the budget doesn’t allow someone’s idea to happen, perhaps encourage them to come up with a different idea.

 

  • DO have fun with this process!  Make it a “family night” to brainstorm ideas and vote on the best things to do.

 

Customize for your family

Some families might have to consider how much their autistic loved one perseverates on the upcoming vacation.  For some it can be a rewarding task to countdown the days on a calendar. But for others it can be unhealthy obsession that interferes with daily life.

If it’s better that your loved one on the spectrum knows about a vacation a week or two in advance instead of months, then by all means do that.  Still, you can involve him or her in studying the place you will visit and dreaming up some fun things to do while on vacation.

I hope that these reasons make sense for you.  It doesn’t mean that you should never have a fun “vacation reveal” party if your autistic loved one enjoys that kind of surprise.

Involving autistic kids in travel planning can be done plenty of time in advance—and not the night before travel—is best.  This will make them feel their input is cherished.

Happy Travels!

Click this article to discover another insight into the need to involve a family member with autism in helping to plan a vacation.

I would love to help you plan an unforgettable vacation!  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

 

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!

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!