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Disneyland, Autism, and Stress
In 2012, I wrote about my experience at Disneyland.
It had been 7 years, since I’d begun helping children, teens and adults in overcoming the effects of ADHD and Autistic Spectrum Disorders—7 years since I’d come to grips with my own struggles. So, when my wife, youngest daughter, and I arranged to spend several days at Disneyland, I was happy, excited and totally expecting to have a good time.
We went through the gates, walked up main street, and headed for the magic kingdom. It was an amazing day--watching the Disney parade, seeing the world of Disney through the eyes of our 4-year-old daughter. We were having a wonderful time.
However, after about 4 hours, something began to happen--something I was not expecting--something I'd not really experienced in a number of years.
As we weaved in an out of the crowds, I became more and more uncomfortable. As my Autonomic Nervous System shifted to the Sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state, both my physiology and psychological state changed.
My posture shifted to one that was 'braced for impact'. My chin dropped slightly. My lips slightly pursed. My eyes continuously scanning the crowd.
At the time, I was unaware that my unconscious mind had become more and more alert to the subtle signs of stress and anxiety among the other patrons. By closing time, even my wife noticed that I detached, distracted, and in a world of my own. I was clearly on high alert. On a scale of 1 to 10, my level of hyper-awareness and reactivity were about a 9.5.
It was not until the next morning that I was aware of my very high stress level as well as some very old stress-related behaviors that I had not experienced in several years.
Most notably was unconsciously tracking all of my footsteps to avoid cracks and breaks in the paving as well as the myriad of invisible lines created by the corners of wall, doors, furniture, and other architectural features.
Fortunately, this awareness enabled me to walk myself through a short series of physical and mental exercises to restore myself to a relatively relaxed and focused state that was much more conducive to an enjoyable day at Disneyland.
My reasons for relating this experience is that anyone, particularly children, with the physical and emotional sensitivities common to ADHD and other ASD’s, is vulnerable to this type of response to large crowds or stimulating events. (Some may recall my experience becoming overwhelmed at the first game of the 2010 world series.)
It was only my observation and awareness of my own stress response and my tools as a Learning Specialist that allowed me to take the necessary actions to escape that hyper-stress response and have a really enjoyable time with my family.
Your typical ADHD or ASD child will have no such awareness or tools at his disposal.
As his nervous system becomes more and more overloaded by the conflicting sea of emotions and unconscious sensations, he will most than likely feel more and more anxious and dissociated until, ultimately, he releases his anxiety upon whomever he feels is safe to deliver his wrath.
As parents, it is up to us to see beyond how we think our children “should” feel or should respond to a given situation and be present to how they are actually responding. As parents of ADHD or ASD children, we must be even more vigilant to those situations that will overstimulate or over-stress our children.