Involving Autistic Kids in Travel Planning

Involving Sensory 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!

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!

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!

 

Life, Animated: Disney and Autism

LIFE, ANIMATED: Disney Lessons and Autism

The World of Disney Meets the World of Autism

This article is about the documentary”Life Animated” and the Disney lessons that apply to reaching those with autism.

What happens when you merge the world of Disney with the world of autism?

If your autistic child loves Disney like mine, then read on.

You will discover valuable insights about the power of using the lessons from Disney stories to forge a connection between the inner world of autism and the wider world beyond ourselves.

Disclaimer: 

I am NOT a movie critic. 

I viewed this film from the perspective of a parent who has children with autism (aka, the “intended viewer”).  Rather than critique the quality of the film, I observed the lessons both the parents and their son learned over the course of their autism journey.  I found new insights as well as emotional support by relating my own experiences to theirs.

I hope you can, too.

 

INTRODUCING…THE SUSKIND FAMILY

From the beginning of the documentary Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, it’s easy to see that Ron and Cornelia are your pretty typical American parents.

They work hard to support one another. They nurture their children to achieve developmental milestones.

And they record their journey raising their kids through video, photos and writing.

But when their youngest son turned three, their world turned upside-down.  “Owen vanishes,” says Ron. His motor skills deteriorated, he was no longer sleeping well, he lost eye contact, and his language processing broke down, only reciting “gibberish”.

“Someone kidnapped our son…”

Owen had AUTISM.  

The painful devastation of receiving the diagnosis for the first time was still very evident on his father and mother’s faces, even though Owen is now in his 20s. Their doctor worried he would never talk again, who told Ron this problem was “out of my league”.

It hurt me to see their longing for the way he used to be.  The idea they could still CONNECT with him seemed gone.

TURNING A PAGE…

It’s clear in the opening scenes of the film that adult-Owen understands and communicates very well with those around him.  To go from “not talking at all” to expressing himself in full, descriptive sentences obviously means…

SOMETHING WORKED! 

After receiving the diagnosis, they did not resign themselves to the possibility Owen would never improve.

But despite four years of therapy, Owen was still exhibiting “echolalia” (a repeated pattern of speech that mental health professions believe to be dysfunctional).  It was not certain that he understood the meanings of what he said.  His parents were starting to believe that wouldn’t change.

Until… “Juicervoice”.

DISNEY TO THE RESCUE!

Owen loved watching Disney movies.  It was the only way to keep him calm and happy in an overstimulating world.

It was also the best way he could connect with his older brother—if they couldn’t talk together they could at least have that shared experience of enjoying Disney side-by-side.

As the family watched The Little Mermaid one night, Owen said “juicervoice”.

Finally, it dawned on the family that he was saying “Just your voice.”

This is the line used by the Sea Witch to convince Ariel that taking her voice was a small price to pay for being human. Owen’s parents believe that this line has significant parallels to the type of challenge he faces in connecting to others using his voice.

In other words, he understands its relevant meaning for himself…more than just parroting words.

Ron expresses his astonishment and hope that Owen is “still in there”.  They “set on a rescue mission to get inside…autism and pull him out”. And they used Disney movies as the rescue lifeline.

 

“DISNEY” THERAPY

It wasn’t enough to allow Owen to memorize all the dialogue and act out the scenes of every Disney movie.  He had to interact with others who also knew the scenes.

His parents used puppets to enhance the interaction. This may be helpful for those on the spectrum who don’t tolerate full attention to themselves in their interactions with others (it’s diverted to the puppets).

They knew being able to recite movie-lines well was not the end goal.  “Scripting” was a functional means of working toward achieving meaningful, two-way social communication.

Simply practicing the dialogue also enhanced Owen’s own speech and language skills, both receptive and expressive.  Instead of making Owen practice language that did not have meaning for him in traditional therapy, they used something he was passionate about.

As Owen got older and mastered speech and language, his parents and therapists moved on to helping him figure out the subtle nuances of social communication.

Now it wasn’t enough to act-out movie scenes. They used the Disney stories to help him navigate the complicated social world of non-verbal communication.

Owen likes that fact that animated characters have exaggerated facial expressions to convey emotions—sadness, anger and joy are black-and-white. The slyness of Iago in Aladdin is easily conveyed when he looks to a scheming Jafar.

Disney movies have also helped Owen deal the emotional burdens of transitioning from one setting to another.  The film shows scenes of Peter Pan as Owen is about to embark on a new journey into adulthood: independent living away from home.

Whenever he encounters a new step in his life, he refers to scenes from Disney movies that he can relate to and thereby feel emotionally supported.  “My childhood days are over, but that doesn’t matter,” says Owen, sitting by himself in a dark theater, scripting a scene from the Lion King in which Simba, now king, roars triumphantly.

PROTECTOR OF SIDEKICKS

One of the most haunting fears of any parent whose child has autism is the prospect he or she will be bullied.

When Owen attended a new school, he became more withdrawn and his behaviors regressed.  After a while, they found out that a couple of boys at school told Owen they would burn his house and hunt him down, tormenting him.

Because he thinks so literally he thought his house would burn down and kill his parents.  As Cornelia recounts this horror, scenes of Quasimodo (Hunchback of Notre Dame) getting mercilessly harassed are shown. (I’m basically crying at this point…)

After confronting the bullying at school, Ron noticed Owen working on something in the basement. He had been drawing Disney characters, but they are all sidekicks—no heroes were drawn.

Owen has identified himself not with the movie heroes but as “the protector of the sidekicks…(because) no sidekick gets left behind”.  He wrote “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks”, of which the film shows a beautifully created animated short.

Owen had used Disney characters and themes to create an original story to process his own complicated emotions associated with rejection and loneliness.  Through his story he identifies with those sidekicks who provided him emotional support on his journey through dark times.

At the end he rises to become a “protector” of those “left behind”.

I caught myself thinking, what an amazing achievement…not just for someone with autism, but for ANYONE.  If this isn’t a perfect example of self-empowerment, I don’t know what is!

APPLYING THE LESSONS FROM “LIFE, ANIMATED”

I laughed, I cried, I learned…

I had previously read the book (which I loved because I could relate to their journey well), so I knew what to expect.

I didn’t expect this documentary to be such a visual treat.

Using scenes from Disney movies that mirrored Owen’s personal growth experiences was very effective in conveying the importance of this form of media in their lives.

Needless to say, it’s a good movie to watch with your autistic son or daughter.  My daughter got into the animated scenes of Owen’s story since she loves to draw.

Because Disney is so ubiquitous in our culture, it should be easy for someone watching this to sense how certain characters and themes were necessary for him understand particular situations in his life.

Disney themes have a steadfast, enduring quality that provide a comforting reassurance. Despite hard times, individuals will rise to the occasion with love and support from others.

As my own kids with autism love Disney so much, this film is incredibly relevant to our family. My kids picked up language easier from watching these movies, especially my son who used closed-captioning as he watched them.

Lesson One: Learn with Joy

Owen’s journey exemplifies that using an AFFINITY-based approach to learning life skills is very effective for those on the autism spectrum (not just a “strengths-based” approach).

The Suskinds approach using Disney is what Temple Grandin has been advocating for years:

target a person’s interests and obsessions rather than general positive qualities and skills.

A person’s “affinities” are used not only to motivate the person to deal with life issues and learn skills in therapy-based settings but can also be used to create and produce a stand-alone product that others appreciate or toward a career.

These affinities should not be seen as a prison but as a “pathway”.  Instead of viewing these “obsessions” as “dysfunctional”, mold them into a functional learning process in which the child learns to interact with the wider world.

As my own children are now in their teens, their childhood Disney passion has become a Disney obsession.

As Disney movies have motivated my son to learn language, he is now self-empowered to write his own Disney stories.  My daughter is obsessed with drawing cartoon characters with intense emotions and themes.

I convinced the speech and music therapists to motivate my kids through their Disney-based interests.  My son practiced social communication skills as a “park tour guide” in speech and composed a Disney musical score.  My daughter learned speech, language and executive functioning skills by reading Disney stories and singing and playing Disney songs.

I even used the original classics upon which Disney based for his movies to motivate my daughter to read books in our homeschooling endeavor.

Without passion, learning language and social skills may be a more arduous process for both the parents and the child.

This link provides more information on the affinity-based techniques that may be used at home or in therapy.

Lesson Two: Get on the Floor and Out of the Box

In order to connect with Owen, Ron and Cornelia had to also know the Disney scenes and dialogue really well themselves. They changed their thinking (and the prevailing thought at the time) that too much TV was bad, that these Disney movies could actually be good for his education and growth.

Just like play-therapy, they got down on HIS level to reach him—to “think outside the box”.

Not only does this mean recognizing your child’s interests but taking the time to really interact in a way with your child that may feel weird or uncomfortable.

For example, it seemed odd or wrong that my kids used movie scripts to talk. But I realized they were able to talk to each other.

“Scripting” was not necessarily a bad thing because they were learning to talk back-and-forth in a two-way social conversation. Once I played along, I had more joyful, meaningful interactions with my kids.

It also means being flexible enough to FAIL—to recognize when something doesn’t work and letting it GO. The reality is that a child cannot be MADE to behave a certain way just because we want them to.

If an approach doesn’t work after a period of time, try something else. Sometimes they have outgrown a certain affinity and it no longer motivates them.  Or an approach is too demanding and exhausts them.  Even therapies can get old and no longer be effective—do something new and fun!

And use puppets if you have to!

Lesson Three: Identify a “Meaningful Life”

I admit that some films with an autism character feel exploitative.  This one did NOT.

Ron and Cornelia don’t complain about Owen’s “bad behavior” but reflect upon the multitude of self-adjustments they had to do in order to meet him where he was at.  Their journey of empowerment and self-discovery was just as important as Owen’s.

As his caregivers, they naturally worry if he has the right social and executive functioning skills to live independently and to his highest potential.

The question of a “meaningful life” is presented in the film. That often comes up in conversations with others, including therapists in IEP and ISP meetings.

The life-goals for Owen are discussed within a collaborative team of “experts” (including mom). Owen generally agrees or disagrees with the ways of achieving those.  While he’s involved in the process of making decisions for himself, he’s not fully “running the show”.

As he gets older, it becomes harder for mom to accept reality of his “deficits” that she has worked so hard to help him overcome as a child (even homeschooling him).

Cornelia’s look of uncertainty and angst hit me in the gut. I know that I will be facing the same reality with my own kids soon. Knowing just how much or little outside help they are going to require to live a good life.

While most parents are dreaming of their children’s futures with starry eyes, many parents whose children have autism often have a very clouded vision of their futures.

Only when I reflect upon some real-world examples of “normal people” needing guidance and support well into adulthood do I realize that I may be taking the perspective of future despair too far.

Ron remarked that letting our kids fail is actually the goal for autism parents.  We need to take a leap of faith and let our kids advocate for themselves at some point.

This was illustrated by the fact that while Owen was invited to give a speech to an autism panel in Paris, France. Ron refused to write the speech for him.  He was firm in making him discover for himself what he needed to say.

We can cheer-on our grown kids but we can’t do it for them. A meaningful life means letting them discover for themselves what they need to do to grow in self-confidence and contentment. It doesn’t necessarily mean a completely independent existence.

FINAL THOUGHTS…

I found it interesting that the Suskinds discuss the fact that Owen “disappears” into autism.  To me, it seems evident that he regressed into autism rather than was “born that way”.  They never say he has “regressive autism”.  Instead they use metaphorical terms to describe their experiences.

It’s unclear whether they explored dietary or other medically-based interventions. Based on their language to discuss his challenges, they were more concerned about helping him socially connect to others through innovative means rather than be medically-treated.

The agenda of the documentary is not about what they believe caused his autism but on the present developmental reality of autism.

I recommend this film for those have autism, for those who love someone with autism (especially parents), and for those who work with those with autism.  If it makes you change your perspective even a tiny bit, it will have served its purpose.

As for myself, it led me to conclude that what I was doing to help my kids was actually okay…and that I’m not alone.  I had the same struggles: emotional breakdowns, therapeutic resistance, and educational dilemmas.

But I also have fun, happy experiences with my kids that help them learn, grow and connect with others (like going to Walt Disney World). Knowing that they have achieved so much already gives me hope for their futures.

What a privilege to be granted access to witness the powerful potential in all of us to rise above the challenges we are given with the support of those who love us.

The documentary film LIFE, ANIMATED can be found here.  LIFE, ANIMATED: THE STORY OF SIDEKICKS, HEROES AND AUTISM can be found on this non-affiliate link here.

 

If you want to experience the magic of Disney in real-life, I would love to help you plan a magical vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!