Theme parks ac­com­mo­date autis­tic guests

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Arthur Levine

In the Acad­emy Award- nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary, Life An­i­mated, a fam­ily is able to com­mu­ni­cate with its autis­tic son by mim­ick­ing char­ac­ters from Dis­ney an­i­mated movies. Chil­dren with autism spec­trum dis­or­ders of­ten de­velop a spe­cial affin­ity for the films. Like most kids, they also en­joy go­ing to Dis­ney theme parks to meet the char­ac­ters in per­son and to en­joy the rides and other ac­tiv­i­ties.

A theme park visit can pose unique chal­lenges for fam­i­lies with autis­tic mem­bers, how­ever. With the preva­lence of autism on the rise ( ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, 1 in 68 chil­dren have the con­di­tion), parks are mak­ing spe­cial ac­com­mo­da­tions avail­able.

Kids on the autis­tic spec­trum don’t just want to meet Snow White, Mickey Mouse, and other char­ac­ters from the Dis­ney dossier. “My son is fas­ci­nated by Thomas,” says Cherie Daly. That would be Thomas the Tank En­gine, the plucky steam lo­co­mo­tive fea­tured in books, the Thomas & Friends tele­vi­sion show, and his own Thomas Land at Edaville Fam­ily Theme Park in Carver, Mass.

Now in her third sea­son as an em­ployee at the park, Daly has been in a unique po­si­tion to ad­vo­cate for her son and other fam­i­lies. When she started, Daly ap­proached Edaville’s gen­eral man­ager and had con­ver­sa­tions with her about what it’s like to have an autis­tic child. As a re­sult, the park has made a num­ber of changes to make vis­its eas­ier for fam­i­lies.

For ex­am­ple, there is a ded­i­cated quiet room stocked with books, puz­zles, and a weighted blan­ket. Daly ex­plains that many chil­dren on the spec­trum can ex­pe­ri­ence sen­sory over­load and act out in a way that oth­ers might mis­in­ter­pret as a tantrum. With large crowds, loud me­chan­i­cal rides, and screams from roller coaster pas­sen­gers, theme parks typ­i­cally present lots of stim­u­la­tion. The quiet room al­lows fam­i­lies to get away from the noise, peo­ple and other dis­trac­tions. “The weighted blan­ket is per­fect to help ( autis­tic chil­dren) get back to bal­ance,” says Daly.

Edaville built a spe­cially de­signed bath­room with Daly’s in­put. Peo­ple un­fa­mil­iar with the dis­or­der might be sur­prised to learn that loud noises from au­to­matic toi­lets, faucets, pa­per towel dis­pensers, and hand dry­ers in pub­lic bath­rooms can scare chil­dren and trig­ger melt­downs. “In my ex­pe­ri­ence, one of th­ese things would set ( my son) off, and it would take me an hour to calm him down,” Daly says. The sen­sory- friendly bath­room at Edaville has man­ual con­trols and is paint- ed a calm­ing shade of blue.

There also is a quiet car on the Thomas train and fid­get toys avail­able for chil­dren to play with while they wait in line for rides ( wait­ing is an­other chal­lenge for peo­ple on the spec­trum). “Ev­ery­thing I sug­gested, our gen­eral man­ager said, ‘ We’ll do it,’ ” notes Daly.

This year, Le­goland Florida in­tro­duced quiet rooms for vis­i­tors with autism spec­trum dis­or­ders. The rooms in­clude weighted blan­kets, squishy toys, noise- can­cel­ing headphones, and ta­bles with Lego build­ing blocks. The park of­fers a com­pli­men­tary Blue Hero Pass that al­lows fam­i­lies to skip the lines at some of the more pop­u­lar at­trac­tions. It also has sim­ple, il­lus­trated guides that help pre­pare peo­ple with autism for the loud noises, bright lights, and other po­ten­tially up­set­ting el­e­ments they might en­counter on some of the rides.

Dol­ly­wood es­tab­lished a ded­i­cated calm­ing room at its Ten­nessee park last sea­son. Vis­i­tors can play with toys that have gen­tly glow­ing lights, en­ter a dark­ened teepee tent, or rest on an over­sized bean­bag chair. Dis­ney World has des­ig­nated break ar­eas for fam­i­lies in first aid sta­tions and other lo­ca­tions at its parks. For vis­i­tors who have dif­fi­culty wait­ing in lines, the Dis­ney parks of­fer a Dis­abil­ity Ac­cess Ser­vice.

While plan­ning mod­i­fi­ca­tions at Edaville, Daly re­lied heav­ily on her ex­pe­ri­ences with her son, Jakob. She of­ten brings him to work and had him test all of the ini­tia­tives. “Jakob thinks he works here,” Daly says with a laugh.

As Edaville’s spe­cial needs rep, she fields calls from par­ents and in­ter­acts with them when they visit. The re­sponse has been won­der­ful, Daly says. “I look at my son, and I see ev­ery other child out there. Now peo­ple are able to come, re­lax, and en­joy the park as a fam­ily. It’s such a great feel­ing.”


Edaville Fam­ily Theme Park, home of Thomas the Tank En­gine, has added a quiet room.


This year, Le­goland Florida in­tro­duced quiet rooms that in­clude weighted blan­kets, squishy toys and noise- can­cel­ing.

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