If you are headed into the Disney theme parks with a family member that has special needs, there are some things you can do to prevent a breakdown and keep everything running smoothly. First of all, let's look at some of the issues you may be dealing with and talk about some insider tips that might help you prevent an avoidable disaster.
Sensitive To Touch
Some children with Sensory Processing Disorders dislike the feeling of being touched unexpectedly — or sometimes, at all. If you are planning on having your child meet characters in the park and they are sensitive to unexpected touch, use your time in the line to draw their attention to those in front of them. Point out how some characters may put their arm around them for a photo or give them a hug. Giving your child a heads-up prior to arrival helps; however, it can be more successful if their attention is drawn to seeing it first-hand. Another option is to use YouTube to show your child what character experiences can be like before you leave. If your child is sensitive to being touched at all, let cast members know a few minutes before your turn when visiting, so they can guide the interaction with the character.
If your child is reluctant to wear new things, you might find keeping a MagicBand on a little troublesome. Consider one of the clip-on carabiners or lanyard clips, as these won't touch your child's skin directly and might stand a better chance at lasting each day. If you want to try a MagicBand, practice at home with a watch to introduce the feeling of having something on their wrist.
Seeking Deep Pressure
While some children avoid the feeling of touch, others seek it out, feeling regulated by deep pressure sensations. If your child needs regular deep pressure to regulate, consider a compression vest that will hold them tightly and make them feel secure. Talk to your occupational therapist about a vest or similar device that might be suitable, and practice with it before coming to Disney theme parks. Another form of deep pressure can be hugs! So every time you see a cast member photographer, get in the picture and give your child a big 'ole cuddle.
Take some little earplugs with you that can be whipped into little ears if the surrounding noise becomes too much. These small, spongey little things won't block out the sound completely (or their enjoyment), however, they may help to tone it down to a level where it can be processed. Earplugs can be especially useful during fireworks, as these may be sounds that your child is not used to hearing at the volume they occur.
Disney theme parks can be very bright, so if your child is sensitive to light, bring some sunglasses for them. It might seem obvious, but spend some time using them at home to make sure that the feeling of having them on their face doesn't irritate them. You can also help them transition from dark areas (and rides) to the bright light from outside by putting sunglasses on just before heading out.
Need Of Sensory Regulation
Make use of on-site playgrounds in Walt Disney World Resort hotels to let them get in that more rigorous playtime that settles down little bodies. All of the pushing, pulling, and climbing they get out of these activities can give them the proprioceptive input they need to get to a calm place emotionally. Just because you have walked for miles and miles within the parks does not cancel out your child's need for this type of sensory input.
Let them hang — literally!
What are some extra things you can bring into the parks that might help?
- Music Therapy - If your child uses music therapy with their OT or psychologist, bring it with you on a small iPod with some earbuds. Kept at a low level, it may help to regulate them during downtime when you take breaks during the day.
- Mermaid Pillow Bracelets - I have mentioned these before. That's because my daughter (okay, and me too) find great release in moving those little sequins back and forth in different directions. It's fun and you can flick them around without even paying much attention, so it is the perfect thing to bring with you to quietly help with anxiety. So how do you take this pillow into a park? Find a bracelet version. My daughter has the Mermaid Pillow Bracelet, although I am sure you could use the casing of a cheap reversible pillow and make your own. Just be sure that it is soft on the inside so it doesn't feel scratchy.
- Chewable Necklace - If your child finds comfort in chewing, find a chewable necklace. They come in very cool and subtle looking designs for both boys and girls. Being able to chew when needed may stop your child from resorting to mild self-harm like biting or scratching. If it turns out they don't need it, it can stay around their neck in fashionable standby.
I hope that helps you avoid a meltdown or two while on your Disney vacation. Next time, we will look at how to get the most out of Disney with tips on how to navigate each Disney theme park with your special needs in mind.