Autism Travel Tips with Wolf+Friends

Autism Travel Tips with Wolf+Friends

 

Autism Travel Tips from Your Autism Guide…featured on “Wolf+Friends”

 

Just recently I had the pleasure of sharing some autism travel tips with PJ Feinstein, founder of the website and app “Wolf+Friends“. This helpful resource connects parents of special needs children with local therapists and well as other parents for a peer-to-peer support system.  Wolf+Friends also features terrific articles that highlight both the challenges and joys of raising those with autism and other diagnoses.

 

Here is the article featured on the Wolf+Friends app. (Simply download the app to continue reading the article.)

 

9 Things to Do Before Your Family Vacation

Angela Zizak, A Certified Autism Travel Professional, Offers Planning Tips For An Easier Trip.

By PJ Feinstein

Travel has always been a passion for Angela Zizak, so much so that the part-time adjunct instructor of sociology recently decided to become a travel planner. Drawing from her experience raising two teenagers with autism, she specializes in creating customized vacations for families with children on the spectrum. 

“When my daughter was six and my son was eight, we stayed at Walt Disney World for a week.  It was the first time we took advantage of an autism accommodation, and it made our trip even more magical,” says Angela. Now a certified autism travel professional, she runs the website Your Autism Guide, encouraging special needs families to step out of their comfort zone and explore exciting destinations.

Angela understands all too well that some travel experiences will be stressful but encourages parents to “think of them as ‘therapeutic growth experiences’’ for your autistic child and the whole family.” Traveling helped her kids to better cope with transitions and new environments, and she and her husband, Tony, learned to become more resilient and playful.

Angela shares 9 tips for parents who aren’t sure how to start planning a vacation with an autistic child or are just nervous about traveling in general.

I would love to help you plan a fun-filled getaway!  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!

Sensory solutions for a Disney park trip

Sensory Solutions for a Disney Park Trip

Solutions for Sensory Needs during a Disney Park Trip

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

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

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

Actually, I am NOT kidding…not one bit.

Okay, just hear me out!

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

…and you’ll just deal with it.

 

But there is HOPE!

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

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

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

 

Sensory Challenges

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

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

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

1. For SOUND sensitivity

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

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

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

2. For TOUCH Sensitivity…

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

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

3. For TASTE Taste Sensitivity…

Get familiar with the restaurant menus at the parks.

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

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

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

4. For SMELL Sensitivity…

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

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

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

5. For SIGHT Sensitivity…

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

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

 

Other Special Needs Challenges

For those with LANGUAGE challenges…

Does your loved one have issues communicating through words? 

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

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

For those with SAFETY AWARENESS challenges…

Is autistic loved one a flight risk? 

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

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

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

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

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

For those with BODY-SPACE AWARENESS challenges…

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

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

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

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

For those susceptible to MELTDOWN TRIGGERS…

What are situations that bring on a meltdown? 

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

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

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

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

For those with TRANSITION challenges…

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

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

 

Prep Your Child Before Your Disney Trip

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

Watch attraction videos.

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

Have them help plan places to visit and dine.

Watch Disney movies and tie them in to certain attractions.

Study the park maps together.

 

Take Advantage of Disney Accommodations for Autism

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

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

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

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

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