A guide to visiting theme parks with a child on the autism spectrum
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If your child is on the autism spectrum, you may have avoided taking some vacations — especially to crowded and frenetic places such as theme parks. You’re not alone. According to a study conducted by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), 87% of families with autistic children don’t go on family vacations.
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Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a developmental condition of varying severity that can cause challenges in social interactions, communication and behavior. Sensitivity to certain stimuli is a common symptom, as are difficulties adapting to changes in routine, which can be an unavoidable element of travel.
With autistic people making up about 1% of the world’s population, it’s rare to find someone whose life hasn’t been touched by the disorder. In fact, in 2019 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one in 59 children falls on the autism spectrum, up from 150 in 2002.
Theme parks, however, are now stepping up their efforts to accommodate autistic visitors.
Some parks are establishing autism training for staff, offering sensory guides that have a special focus on triggers and providing other helpful resources.
We asked Stephen Shore, author of “Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome” and an IBCCES-certified special education professor at Adelphi University, to describe the greatest barriers to traveling for people with ASD and their families.
“Lack of a quiet place to regroup if needed, especially if their child has a meltdown,” he told TPG. “Disapproving looks from people who need greater understanding, long waits to do activities, the traveling itself may be difficult — speaks to the need to educate people working in all modes of transportation.”
And that’s only a sampling of the things you have to consider when traveling to a theme park with a child who is autistic.
Shore himself is also on the spectrum. He now speaks at conferences around the world — sometimes up to 100 a year — about living and traveling with autism, and he has plenty of firsthand experience with the subject.
“Travel can often be overwhelming because there is so much sensory input,” he added in an interview. “Even though travel is often highly scheduled, it’s almost expected that there are going to be delays and other types of irregularities.” It can be especially difficult for an individual who is autistic to handle these on-the-fly changes to the schedule.
Trips to theme parks and amusement parks will always be a challenge to some degree (going to theme parks with any young children, in general, can be hard) — and especially with new changes in place due to COVID-19 — but with parks working to welcome autistic guests across the US, what some people thought impossible has now become possible. You just have to come prepared.
How to Prepare for Your Theme Park Visit
It’s important to understand that there are many different ways autism can show itself in a person — that’s why it’s considered a spectrum. It’s also important to know what is most likely to trigger a meltdown, prior to going to a theme park. People with autism may have sensitivities to crowds, loud noises and changes in routine — things that are all par for the course at a theme park.
Here are a few things to do before traveling:
- Prepare your child with a visual guide to the park
- Watch videos and look at pictures in the weeks and days leading up to the trip
- Show him or her a proposed schedule for the visit
- Practice waiting in line
- Practice mask-wearing if that is something that can be a challenge day to day
What to Bring to the Park
You’ll also want to pack your day bag for the park with items like earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, your child’s favorite device or calming activity, favorite snacks, a sensory toy and a comfortable face mask. The National Autistic Society suggests bringing glasses with dark or colored lenses and ear defenders. Playing calming music over headphones is also something that may help soothe someone with autism.
Some theme parks also have quieter, less crowded days exclusively for guests who are autistic (they’re listed below) as well as designated sensory rooms. Sensory rooms are usually darkly lit, quiet, air-conditioned spaces where visitors with autism can take a break from the overwhelming, fast-paced theme park.
“You can think of it as a quiet room,” Shore said. “It has low sensory input. The lighting will be muted, there might be soft couches, there might be fidget toys in there. It’s a place you can go to kind of get away from it all.”
Last, formulate a schedule with your child and stick to it as best as possible. TPG contributor Dan Miller said he takes time prior to traveling to set up a day-by-day plan for vacations with his children, some of whom are on the autism spectrum. “We usually start with a sheet of paper and divide it into morning/afternoon/evening, and add in the details we know,” he wrote.
Shore also suggested that if your child is nonverbal or has issues reading, a picture-based schedule is a good alternative.
Once you’ve decided that you want to take your child to a theme park, your next decision is which one.
Parks That Offer ASD Accommodation
Shore suggested that families with children who are on the autism spectrum visit a theme park that is IBBCES-certified. In order to be certified, a theme park must check all of the boxes below:
- A minimum 80% of staff trained and certified in the field of autism (this means that they’ve taken both an online course and passed a standardized test)
- Maintain compliance with National Healthcare/Education Accreditation standards
- Commit to ongoing training in autism
- Comply with HIPAA and ADA requirements
A full list of amusement parks that have certified autism centers can be found on the Certified Autism Center (CAC) website here. We’ve also listed some popular parks below. Only Sesame Place is a CAC — but all of the ones highlighted below have a program to accommodate guests who are autistic.
Disney Theme Parks in the US
Navigating behemoth Disney parks with a child who is autistic might seem daunting, but Disney has tools and accommodations that can make a visit easier.
Disney offers designated areas for downtime. These quiet spots can be found on the visual guides and are designed for those with autism who need to take a break from the perpetually hectic theme park. If you’re struggling to find the downtime spaces, any cast member around the park should be able to help you locate them.
It’s also important to enroll your child in the park’s Disability Access Service. This service is designed for guests who are unable to withstand extended waits at attractions and rides and allows them to schedule a specific return time that is comparable to the current queue wait time so they can ride without standing in line.
Disney also has a nifty Rider Switch program that allows groups of three or more to split up and swap spots on attractions, rather than having to wait in line twice if some in the party can’t (or don’t want to) ride the attraction.
More information on how to prepare for a trip to Disneyland can be found here, while information on preparing for a trip to Disney World is here.
Be sure to check and make sure these features are up and running as theme parks begin their pandemic reopening.
The accommodation services at Universal Orlando are very similar to at Disney, with some differences.
For example, the park offers Child Swap instead of Rider Switch. It’s similar to how things work at Disney, but it’s offered on “most” attractions throughout the resort, instead of all. In some ways, it is actually better as there is frequently a waiting room for the rest of the family.
Universal also has an Attraction Assistance Pass. The pass allows guests to schedule a return time similar to the current wait time for the given attraction, thus avoiding queuing. Passes can be collected at guest services, but be warned that you might have to provide a list or written explanation as to why your kid qualifies for the pass. A good old-fashioned Express Pass purchase may also make the day go more smoothly.
Check out the Accessibility Information Packet here. There isn’t much to peruse, but you can get familiar with the maps and formulate a plan in advance of your visit.
Sesame Place was the world’s first theme park to be a Certified Autism Center with at least 80% of park staff trained and certified to interact with park guests on the spectrum.
Among the accommodations that the park offers autistic visitors are Special Access Passes that are available at the welcome center upon arrival. These allow guests — along with three companions — quick access to six dry rides and three wet rides.
There are also two designated sensory and quiet rooms, special viewing areas for the parade and character dining experiences in which kids who can’t wait in a line still get to meet their favorite Sesame Street characters. The latter experience requires an additional fee, however.
Before you go, download the park’s IBCCES-approved sensory guide for a ride-by-ride breakdown of specific challenges children with autism may experience.
According to its website, since 2016 Legoland has offered a variety of programs and services for guests with ASD. For example, it has multiple quiet rooms equipped with noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets, squishy toys and Lego building tables throughout the park.
Legoland offers “social stories” as well, which are illustrated, step-by-step walkthroughs that give guests a sampling of theme park rides and shows so they won’t be surprised by any periods of darkness, loud noises, bright lights or other potential triggers.
Last, since this is an IBBCES-certified park, resort employees must go through specialized training so they are properly qualified to interact with and assist guests (and their families) on the autism spectrum.
Dollywood has a “social story” page with photos on its website that’s great for guests looking to familiarize their child with autism with the park prior to the visit. Designed like a picture book, it walks guests through the park in a slideshow, storybook-like format.
Dollywood also has a ticketing program similar to other parks in which guests with autism can obtain a boarding pass at the Ride Accessibility Center that allows them (and up to four other guests) to avoid the line by arriving at an attraction at a designated return time. It also offers a Parent Swap ride program — which is virtually the same thing as Disney’s ride switch program.
And if things begin to get too hectic, Dollywood has a sensory Calming Room with beanbag chairs, weighted blankets, a teepee and fiberoptic lights.
Download the Dollywood app, which features attraction details, daily show schedules, customized maps and live ride wait times here.
Six Flags offers guests with autism a special Attraction Access Pass that allows them to use alternate entrances into rides without having to wait in the queue. When guests arrive at an attraction with their pass, they’ll receive a ride reservation time “comparable to the current wait time for the same ride/attraction.” When the guests’ time arrives, they and up to three companions will be allowed to board via an alternate entrance.
They also offer a designated Autism Day for park guests who are on the spectrum. Six Flags says the day is “sensory-friendly,” equipped with adjusted lighting, additional special education staff from the Gersh Academy and designated decompression areas throughout the park with sensory-friendly items like iPads, couches and more.
They also provide guests with an attraction-by-attraction sensory guide. But Autism Day only comes once a year, so make sure to keep a close eye on the calendar if you’re interested in bringing your family.
Aside from some of the most extreme roller coasters in the US, Cedar Point does a lot to accommodate guests with autism. It has both Boarding Pass and Parent Swap systems, as well as several quiet attractions and zones to stop in throughout the day. The park recently added a new sensory room to FrontierTown First Aid, which is located around the corner from the Jitney Arcade. You can learn more about that here.
Trying new things can be scary for anyone, but sometimes especially so for a person with ASD. Fortunately, the thrill of visiting a theme park may still be possible — just be sure to confirm that the desired accommodations are up and running before visiting the parks. If the above parks don’t work with your travel plans, you can find other IBBCES-approved parks here.
Special thanks to Stephen Shore.
Featured image by Solstock via Getty Images.
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