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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.
A few tips for navigating Disneyland:
- If possible, go in the off-season.If possible, go during the week (Tuesday through Thursday).
- If possible, stay in a Disney Hotel and take advantage of the hotel guest only park times.
- Generally, arrive early (not rushed). Leave early. (After 5pm the stress level rises dramatically.)
- If the child is old enough and able, plan the trip with your child. Map out your route though the park. If the child is willing and interested, plan, plan, plan and review your plans ad nausea. (TIP: Develop your plan with lots of PICTURES—pictures of the park, pictures of the hotel room… and It the child is up to it, create MULTIPLE possible plans with various permutations to avoid fixation on one particular outcome.)
- DON'T RUSH! Some parents feel like they need to get their money's worth and rush from ride to ride dragging their exhausted and confused child behind. Kids will not care if you get to 6 rides a day or only 3. Let them enjoy the experience.
- Minimize park-hopping and jumping from town to . Pick one 'town' and work it. If the child wants to watch the ducks or ride the teacups 9 times, ENJOY IT!
- If you want to see the fireworks, you can either the park at 4pm and come back for the show or watch the show from the Disney Hotel.
- If you're a Disney Hotel guest, you can save HOURS of walking, driving and parking hassles.
- If it’s HOT, do outdoor rides and rides with long lines in the morning. Save inside shows, inside rides and rides on the water for the afternoon.
- Try to maintain a reasonable diet. Getting all sugared-up early in the day is a recipe for mid-day crash.
- Watch for signs of stress, overwhelm, fatigue.
- Warning signs of stress and fatigue include slower walking, wining, crying, slouching, flushed skin, resistance...
- Use stress-reduction exercises and sensory processing stims before, during and after your visit. Click Here for two simple exercises from our ebook, Waves--Not Spoons.
- Some ASD children nay need noise-canceling headphones and/or sunglasses.
- Dress in layers. shed layers as the day warms up.
- The bottom line is, take your cues from the child. When it’s time to stop, it’s time to stop.
Obviously, each child will have his or her own sensory needs to address. Have a selection of the child’s stim toys, comfort foods, clothing and other items on hand to help the child feel at home.
That’s a brief overview of Disneyland strategies. For more tips, strategies and sensory stims for different occasions, download, “Waves—Not Spoons: Managing our Physical, Emotional and Social Energy”?.