The Disney Parks; they can be a sensory Wonderland or Hades’ Underworld for any child, but especially one that is affected with sensory processing difficulties. Whether on the autistic spectrum, diagnosed with attention disorders, or simply a “sensitive” child, vacationing to any Disney Park can be a mixed blessing. More and more anecdotal tales suggests that these children (or adults) can be greatly enriched by the experience. However, without proper forethought, the pitfalls can be many and challenging. Any Disney fan will suggest that you plan your Disney vacation in advance to get the most of your stay with a minimum of “friction”. Vacationing with a special child requires additional organization and simplifying to prevent the dreaded MELTDOWN. With a bit more strategic thinking, you can remain open to the magic and have your child see the park as the “Happiest Place on Earth”.
As the mother of a son diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I understand these trials and tribulations fully; each time we took our young child to Walt Disney World, his school would warn us- he’ll regress! But with each trip, he would return to school with new language and a new spark. Every time. It was then, 15 years ago, that the concept for DIStherapy was born. I had proof- Disney IS therapy. But as with any wise therapeutic program, this involves strategic planning, of course. As a mom and vocal member of the autism community, I freely offer my basics for trip planning. Generally, I suggest that you streamline your visit by vacationing when the crowds are lightest (check the crowd calendars at touringplans.com) and staying at a monorail resort on property (off-season rates make this more affordable). Assuming you will be spending most of your time at the Magic Kingdom, the ease of transportation and increased flexibility for your party is well worth the extra money. I can’t tell you how many times I calmly strolled back to the Contemporary Resort, or rode the monorail ad infinitum while my son was having a “moment”. The rest of my family was able to enjoy the park, and we returned when the “time was right”- no harm, no foul. Additionally, our family found using a taxi service was the most seamless way to travel to other parks and get to and from the airport. Each added minute of waiting, standing in line, or looping to other hotels means your little one’s sensory system is being taxed. Save that for the parks!! Perhaps most importantly, obtaining a Guest Assistance Card upon reaching the Parks can further alleviate the challenges of sensory overload while waiting on attraction lines. Disney Moms Panelist Ritzy McCarthy fully explains the GAC here, and my pal Kathy of Special Mouse Podcast outlines some potential changes for the future.
As a physical therapist, my tips are more specific, but vary according to whether your child is a sensory “seeker” or “avoider”. The following sensory integration basics touch on.all 5 senses and all 8 sensory systems. As a parent, you know your child best, and can judge what your own child requires. Without any doubt, no two children with sensory challenges have exactly the same needs. A Disney vacation is not the time to experiment with new methods, but because of the explosion of stimuli, it is not the time to go off your sensory diet!
Top PT Tips:
Interoception: Or the internal sense of well being. To maximize safety and calm anxieties (for parent and child), a sturdy special needs stroller is the way to go- even for older or large children. Hopefully, you will have established this “safety zone” prior to your trip, and it has become a familiar safe haven. This cocoon will become a source of comfort in an unfamiliar (yet magical) world. It will be a great aid for air travel, transfers, and throughout your resort as well as the parks. Be sure to personalize it will a bean bag pillow, clip-on personal fan, foam cushion, or whatever therapy aid your child responds to best.
Proprioception: Or “own body” sense; receptors from joints, muscle and bone alert body awareness. Weighted vests, belts, stuffed animals and blankets can provide deep pressure input, and lead to relaxation and security. If you are not traveling in the uncomfortably hot summer months, these aids can be worn or left in the stroller for comfort. (Those super big and strong hugs work well too!)
Vestibular: Our balance and movement sense. Stimulation of the vestibular system can ironically have a calming effect on children with sensory integration difficulties, and lead to increased alertness.
|Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort|
Some of my favorite “sensory gyms” are found on the grounds of the Walt Disney World Resort hotels. Nothing beats an afternoon swing after a busy and possibly intense day in the parks. These playgrounds are not normally crowded, and can offer you and your child some one-on-one therapy time; simulating techniques used by your child’s PT or OT. Be sure to confer with them before you leave for your vacation . The hammocks at the resorts also may work wonders. (I used to ride the monorail back to Disney’s Polynesian Resort just for park decompression via hammock time!)
Maintaining your child’s sensory diet while vacationing at a Disney Park can be invaluable in organizing, and hence calming and regulating their systems. Spectrum disorders and ADHD are highly variable diagnoses, but I’m hoping that just one of these physical therapy nuggets can make your family’s experience a bit more magical and special.