We have been rather silent on this blog for a bit, dear friends, because we escaped our mundane lives for the fabulous Walt Disney World! Chad and I were blissfully unplugged, Nate had no therapy, and the three of us were able to conquer all four parks–the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom–plus Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon in a whirlwind week of fun.
Through the whole experience, we learned that Nate is awesome at being a kid. He doesn’t get to be a kid that often. Therapy really takes it out of our little guy and, while it’s fun, it’s still work. To have nothing to do but ride on rides, play in splash pads, roam free, and get to eat dessert at every meal was pure heaven and Nate took to it like a champ.
We picked Disney World for two reasons. First and foremost, it’s tons of fun and designed to be enjoyable to people of all ages. On the flight and in the parks, you are surrounded by kids. If your child has a meltdown, rest assured that about fifty others are, too; no one will stop and stare at you for ruining their meal. Every employee makes a point to be happy and cheerful, right down to the folks who are cleaning the sidewalks. And there were tons of things for Nate to enjoy: rides, swimming pools, character meals. You name it, we did it, and Nate loved it.
Almost equally important, we chose Disney World because they make accommodations for kids on the spectrum, as autistic kids have a difficult time understanding what “wait” means. For Disney’s most popular rides, they have a feature called FastPass. Should you feel the line for the ride is too long (wait times are posted; the longest wait time we saw was 40 minutes), you may print out a FastPass ticket, which allows you to get in a special line during an allotted hour (i.e. 7:40PM – 8:40PM), which might be scheduled as far out as three or four hours past the time in which you printed the ticket.
For Nate, neither option works well. Being pressed up in a loud, noisy, sweaty (and smelly — don’t forget that Nate’s senses are heightened) line of grumpy adults and kids, Nate will freak out. He may become self-injurious, banging his head against our shoulder as we hold him or he may just meltdown completely. As for the FastPass, we could come back later but we don’t have the capacity to piecemeal FastPass ticket availability times together to make an experience for Nate. The solution? Autistic kids receive a Guest Assistance Pass. It allows Nate, myself, and Chad to jump into the FastPass lane without having a FastPass ticket. The longest wait we experienced was five minutes. And it was awesome. It allowed Nate to be aware and happy as we boarded rides and prevented him from becoming overwhelmed. We also met another family from England who had a son on the spectrum. Benny was wheelchair bound; they received the Guest Assistance Pass plus a special wheelchair pass that allowed him to go on rides in his specially designed chair!
The employees also seemed to know what autism was. We did many character meals at Disney. I let each character know that Nate was autistic and needed some time to warm up to him/her. Those who weren’t allowed to speak (those in costume), all nodded in understanding. If the character didn’t have a mask (Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter), it was easier for Nate. If the character was costumed, it was a bit overwhelming. We learned that Nate loves Goofy and Pluto’s whiskers (they wobble when you pull on them), he liked to touch the characters’ noses, he would willingly give them high-fives, and, most importantly, he approached them faster if they pet Hobbes first. (Did I mention that Hobbes 2.0 received an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World? He did.) A few characters lost their mind and tried to take Hobbes; that did not go over well. And one character (Chip of Chip and Dale, pictured above) didn’t mind my warning and went right for Nate. That earned Chip a solid kick in the belly. Every character after that kept their distance. (Word travels fast.)
It was tricky being out and about with Nate without our usual comforts. We didn’t pack any toys or books; he bathed with disposable plastic cups and a glowing ice cube that we scored at a meal. We also didn’t have many PECS with us. Not knowing what we would do, I couldn’t figure out what PECS we would need. So I grabbed the PECS folder and a few generic cards: Go Outside, Car (which to Nate means “we’re going to the car”), Swimming (Nate loves water), and some others. We only needed to use PECS in one specific instance. Nate was at a splash pad and was clearly torn between wanting to stay and wanting to go. The Florida sun made him tired quickly but he loved the water so much that he didn’t want it to end. When we asked if he was “all done,” he behaved as if he was. But when we started to leave, he flipped out. So finally, we whipped out our PECS envelope, grabbed the Swimming card, and gave it to Nate. I held one hand open and the PECS folder was open in the other. I asked, “Do you want more swimming or are you all done?” The card promptly went into the folder, signaling that Nate was done. We had a smooth transition to the changing room after that.
Transitioning from rides was a different story all together. Nate loved rides. We went on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (twice), It’s a Small World (twice), The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and many others. When he got on the ride, Nate was excited and often clapped. When the ride was over, he was mad. When we exited the Pooh ride (one of the first ones we did on vacation), Nate freaked out. We were spit out into a gift shop. Chad set Nate down on the floor to walk and Nate took off running up the EXIT ramp and tried to get back on the ride. After that, we employed my little trick to end baths: I count backwards from three to one and then say and sign “All Done.” As soon as I say, “Three…,” Nate scrambles to get his fingers in position and continues to try to count with me. He signs “all done,” too, and the transition was textbook perfect.
Nate’s obsession with rocks continued at the Mouse’s House. Chad and Nate have spent many an afternoon in the backyard, gathering pebbles and chucking them in Nate’s little pool. When Nate saw the giant rocks at the park, he freaked out: Nate wanted rocks NOW! They were huge and nothing could deter him from taking a rock. And he could not comprehend the fake rocks that we encountered at Typhoon Lagoon. It was a wall, designed to look like stacked rocks, but it was really molded composite. The Disney magic sure fooled Nate because he spent a good three minutes trying to get a “rock” out of the wall.
And one more thing that we learned about our boy: Nate is a champion pooper on a plane. Two poops on the way to Florida and three on the way back. It must the change in cabin pressure….
Once I get my act together, more pictures will be posted on Nate’s fan page on Facebook!