Autism & theme parks
If you have been following along on social media you would be all across the fact that we have just spent the last 10 days on the Gold Coast, enjoying a long overdue family holiday.
A big part of any family holiday to the Gold Coast is a visit to one of the many theme parks – after all, the Gold Coast is theme park central in Australia. Warner Bros Movie World, Dream World, Sea World, Wet n Wild, White Water World – they are all located within close proximity to each other, ready for a heady rush of fun and excitement.
For most families, this would be the ideal family holiday together. Enjoying the thrill of the rides, exploring new attractions, trying new foods and splashing about in the water. It really has the makings of the perfect family holiday.
However, for families living with autism, the very thought of visiting a theme park can be overwhelming. At first glance, autism & theme parks don’t really go together, for many of the following reasons:
- Sensory threats – water, thrill rides, new food/textures, just to name a few
- Food limitations
- The risk of running off
- Fear of unknown
- Inability to wait in line
- Issues with taking turns & sharing
- Risk of meltdown
I had no idea what to expect when we had our first theme park-like experience together as a family. It was an impromptu visit to Pacific Park on Santa Monica Pier, just prior to our stay at Walt Disney World (WDW) in Orlando last year. We had NEVER been to a theme park as a family. The kids had been to Luna Park in Sydney with school but we had never attempted such a visit as a family.
You can possibly imagine my inner terror as we walked through the gates. Would this be a total disaster? Have we wasted thousands of dollars? Could we cope with the stress and strain?
We were lucky – our kids loved the rides and were able to navigate the waiting and the turn taking and the mass of people much better than I ever expected them to. And this was the same when we arrived at Walt Disney World.
The gamble did indeed pay off (lucky for us!)
But what if it hadn’t? What could have we done to be more prepared?
There are several ways you can stack the odds more in your favour and better prepare your child(ren) for a theme park experience. I certainly wouldn’t advocate going in on a wing and a prayer like we did.
So here are 7 strategies for tackling theme parks when you have a family member with autism.
Utilise Social Stories
Social stories are a very effective way to provide explicit instruction to those on the autism spectrum. Through visual images and words, common situations can be broken down into easy to follow steps, providing guidance in situations where there are often unwritten rules to follow.
You can develop as many social stories as required and they can be as brief or as detailed as you like – as long as they work for your child. Consider putting together social stories for the following common social interactions:
- lining up
- waiting your turn
- being in a crowd
- trying new food (or food that may differ from their normal fare)
- how to ask for help if lost
- ordering & paying for items (for older kids)
- going to the toilet
- acceptable/unacceptable topics of conversation
- being polite
To help you out, there are a few places you can find pre-made, and free to use, social stories that you can adapt for your own purposes:
In the past we have created visual itineraries that have acted like social stories, providing guidance for our kids while also providing them with information on what we’ll be doing, where we’ll be going and who we may see.
How your social story looks is irrelevant. What IS important is that you clearly guide your child through a scenario and provide them with acceptable ways to deal with what may happen during the scenario.
This will really help them when it comes time to navigating some of the many challenges of a theme park visit.
Research the park you plan to visit
This is key to having a successful theme park experience. It really does pay to do your research and know as much about the park as you can prior to your visit. Because, let’s face it, you need to know whether it’s going to be worth all this preparation and planning, don’t you?
Are there rides, attractions and experiences that will interest your child? What are your kids’ special interests? How can these be incorporated into your visit? Catering to their special interest will definitely help to engage them in the outing and give them potential motivation to stay longer.
To give you an example, our son has a special interest in public pay telephones and he enjoys looking at them, pretending to make a call and generally taking in everything about the structure and lights around them. Thankfully, there are pay phones in most places so we can take advantage of this when required – this has provided a powerful motivator for us in the past.
Other things you should research prior to your theme park visit include:
- opening hours
- ticket pricing & packages (some parks offer discounts to people with disability too)
- food options & ability to cater to dietary restrictions
- things you are allowed to bring into the park
- disability & special provisions (see more below)
- ride restrictions (height, weight, age)
- layout of the park (for planning & mobility purposes)
- character meeting opportunities (to either catch up with, or avoid, characters)
- planned maintenance that may impact ride operations
This guide from Autism at the Parks provides some great tips for pre-planning your stay, particularly for the big theme parks in Orlando.
Understand applicable special provisions
Every park has a page devoted to catering for the special needs of potential guests. These may cater more for patrons with a physical disability but often they also benefit kids with other conditions, such as autism. Contact guest services prior to your visit and ask them about any special provisions that could make your visit easier.
At WDW we were able to access the Disability Access Service which provided our son with a return time at most rides so he didn’t have to wait in line. This provision was single-handedly the most important and most useful for our family during our visit to WDW. There is a similar system in place at Universal Orlando which we registered for, but didn’t need to use, while we were there.
For the Australian parks, consideration for special provision is undertaken on a case-by-case basis. At the Village Roadshow parks (Movie World/Sea World/Wet n Wild) all patrons can purchase a Fast Track pass to guarantee priority entry to the most popular attractions, removing the stress of having to wait for long periods. At this stage there is nothing available that resembles the complimentary DAS offered at WDW.
Map out your day
You know your child best so consider their interests and preferences when looking at how to spend your day. Given our experiences, I recommend you look at a 3 – 4 hour visit at a maximum because that seems to be the duration in which everyone can cope best with the demands of a theme park. If you stay beyond this point, it’s inevitable that stress and strain will start to take its toll and your enjoyable outing will swiftly turn sour.
Look at putting together a rough agenda for the day which can be used as the basis of a visual itinerary/social story. Include everyone’s preferences and make it clear that everyone will have the chance to enjoy a ride or experience of their choice. Map out a logical progression from location to location and don’t forget to include rest and toilet breaks.
Providing a visual map of the day, and of what may happen, will definitely help manage anxiety and assist with managing expectations as well.
Anticipate sensory threats that may upset your child
There are sensory threats everywhere at a theme park with the following just a small sample:
- food (hence the need for a sensory lunchbox)
- getting wet (my son intensely dislikes getting wet so we avoided most rides involving water)
- thrills (vestibular challenges from moving quickly at high speed, being dropped abruptly and losing balance)
- being close to strangers in a crowd
- strobe lighting
- being in enclosed spaces
You know your child best and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what sensory experiences may affect them most. So do your best to anticipate them early. It won’t be possible to address all of them (or to identify them all) but the more you can anticipate issues, the more chance you have of avoiding sensory overwhelm.
There may be rides and experiences that you will choose to avoid. Or you may build in rest & recovery time in between experiences to help lessen the affects of sensory overload. Just have a plan in place to address any sensory issues before they become insurmountable problems.
Bringing along items such as noise cancelling headphones and fidget toys could also assist in addressing specific sensory needs during the day.
Have an escape plan
Sometimes you can have all the plans in the world but things may still go wrong. If things really do head south and you need to get out of the park quickly, have a plan in place to do so.
Designate a pre-arranged location to meet up if you become separated. Ideally this should be a place where your child can have have some quiet time to help calm down before exiting the park.
There is obviously an advantage in driving to the park in this situation as you don’t have to wait to leave. If possible, try and get a park as close to the entry as you can so you don’t have to struggle as much on your way out.
Alternatively, if you travelled to the theme park via shuttle or public transport think about the logistics of coping with a child experiencing sensory overload while travelling with others – identify ways you can help them navigate transport options with the least amount of stress for all.
Try to relax and have fun
I know this is where I struggle the most when we head out on excursions as a family. After undertaking all the planning and preparation to get there, you often find yourself on tenterhooks to see how things will go. It really can be hard to relax and let out the breath you’ve been unconsciously holding in for so long.
But it is important to relax as much as you can AND to have fun yourself. Ensure that your map of the day has something you can look forward to as well. Try to remain calm and show that you are looking forward to this outing too. The last thing you want to do is to channel your own anxieties and worries onto your kids.
It WILL be a nerve-wracking visit the first time around because you will not know how your kids will cope with the theme park experience until you try. But try to let the stress go, as much as you can. Choose to enjoy the experience.
Choose to have a go.
You CAN do the theme parks as an autism family. It might require more preparation and planning but it is possible.
We’re up to 10 theme parks now and counting – and we’re by no means done just yet!
Have you visited a theme park as an autism family? Do you have any further tips to add?