We’ve shared some of the disability travel tips we’ve learned from traveling with our young niece who is on the spectrum and needs some extra help to feel comfortable at theme parks and hotels. We’ve also had some froggy friends give us some pointers on navigating the parks with a disabled adult. While some information remains the same (like using Disney World’s Disabilities Access Card), adults have different needs from smaller kids. In this post, we're providing tips for traveling to the theme parks with an adult with autism.
Traveling to the Theme Parks with an Adult with Autism
In some ways, traveling with an older teen or an adult with autism is very similar to traveling with a child with the same condition. Both can benefit from some pre-flight education if you are flying (see our frogtastic guide to flying with autism here). Both kids and adults can benefit from Disney’s DAS card and from Universal Studio’s AAD pass. There are some distinct concerns that parents with older teens or adults on the spectrum share. One of the primary issues is the way the child is perceived. If he or she is seen as a conventional, neurotypical adult, then behavior that is part of his disability could be cause for alarm or impatience. People who would be very understanding of a 3-year-old in full sensory meltdown will often lack empathy for an 18-year-old with the same problem, unless they are aware of his disability. He could even be perceived as drunk, impaired or a risk to others. The following tips will help ensure your child feels safe and comfortable on vacation, no matter how old he is.
Flying with an Adult with Autism
We’ve shared some toadally awesome tips for getting any child with ASD ready for a successful flight, but if you are traveling with an adult or older-looking teen, there are some additional safety considerations. Most kids are given cursory inspections at best when passing through TSA; any adult is subject to a more enhanced pat-down or a more thorough check. The techniques used to search disabled passengers have triggered outrage in the past, so be aware this could be a more challenging part of the flight process if you are with an adult with ASD. Since a person with autism may feel particularly uncomfortable if his space is invaded or he is subject to a pat-down, you should include this in your practice runs. Watching videos, talking about screening “we take off our shoes, then step into the screening area and wave at the sky” makes this an expected experience. This alone can go a long way toward helping an adult with a sensory disability get through TSA.
TSA has a printable disabilities card that you can print out and bring along. This can also alert screeners of the need for extra assistance and time. Get your copy here. If you are traveling with a service dog, he will be permitted on the plane, but the passenger the dog serves will likely be subject to an enhanced pat-down. Consider contacting TSA in advance of your trip (24 hours is best) and letting them know you may need accommodations.
You can’t avoid the pat-down, but you can make it easier on your child if you suspect it will be upsetting. If you have any concerns, having an advocate with you, provided by the airport, will make things easier on you, your child and even the people around you, so don’t hesitate to contact the TSA if you need assistance. Speed things up by helping your adult child pick out an outfit that is not bulky and that features slip on shoes; jackets or sweaters can go through the x-ray machine separately. Letting the TSA agent know that your travel companion has autism can also help, though individual agents vary in their helpfulness and empathy.
Letting the agent know may not prevent them from doing an advanced screening, but it will let them know why your child is acting differently or seems more uncomfortable than most screened guests. Fortunately, airports that see heavy vacation and tourist traffic also tend to be very accommodating of disabilities. MCO in Florida has an outstanding level of assistance and service available to those needing extra assistance; many other airports do as well.
Theme Parks: Considerations for Adults with Autism
Start your trip with a visit to Guest Services, if you need to acquire a disability pass for the length of your stay. This will provide you with specific accommodations that your child needs to feel comfortable. A few of the concerns that are unique to those traveling with an adult on the spectrum include:
The main differences a family with an adult with autism may encounter almost all have to do with perception and size. While any small child won’t be permitted to board a ride alone, an adult could be placed into a ride vehicle alone by an over-enthusiastic ride attendant. Sticking together, particularly at the point of entry to the ride, can help prevent this from happening. Accidental separations most often occur when a large group is moving from one place to another (from the Haunted Mansion stretch portrait room or the pre-show room at the Tower of Terror) or when a ride does not stop for loading (Spaceship Earth, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin). Being aware of this and taking your companion by the hand can prevent separation, as attendants may just see “adult” and direct them accordingly.
Dining: Can you Order from the Kids’ Menu?
Dining: Your family member may be an adult chronologically, but they may have a kid’s taste buds. While most restaurants will allow you to order from the kids’ menu, others can accommodate you with side dishes or alternatives. Let your server know any dietary preferences and request a kid’s menu if your adult child wants one — even if you end up having to purchase an adult sized meal. Call ahead if you require gluten free or other food accommodations and the chef will be able to prepare something for you.
Restrooms: You Have Options for Privacy and Space
There are family restrooms scattered throughout each park; each regular restroom in the Orlando theme parks is also ADA compliant and outfitted with oversized handicapped stalls. Use one of these if you need to. Don’t send an adult with a cognitive disability into a bathroom alone; theme park bathrooms can be huge and have multiple entrances and exits, making it easy to get lost.
Pools and Swimming
ASD kids are drawn to water, and most do not grow out of it. If your child needs to wear a life jacket for safety, you do not have to bring your own. Each water park and hotel at the major Orlando parks is equipped with life jackets that fit even XXL adults, so you can enjoy the pool without worry.
Security and Safety
Just like the airport, adults are given more scrutiny at the theme park security bag checks than kids. Make it easy by carrying your adult child’s bag or backpack yourself; they can accompany another member of your party through the “no bags’ line to streamline the process.
Full face characters, or those that wear masks, like Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and dozens of others fully engage with children but are sometimes more reserved with adults. These characters also have very limited visibility; if your older teen or adult is tall, the character will assume they are a typical adult – and act accordingly. If you know your child will enjoy a more childlike encounter with the characters, you can tell Tigger (or his companion) that your adult child has Autism; most characters will then move and interact with more care. If you know your adult with ASD wants to see the character, but not engage with them, you can also let the workers know. Most are extremely accommodating to guests with disabilities and will follow your lead. Increased awareness of Autism and other “invisible” disabilities has made it easier than ever to enjoy a ~hoppening~ family vacation together. The Orlando theme parks have made substantial strides to accommodate disabilities, in many cases, they’ve gone further than the ADA requires to ensure the entire family feels safe and welcome.
Taking some time to prepare before you go and to be aware of the potential problems can help your entire family have a toadally awesome time in Orlando.
Have tips or questions about traveling with an adult with autism. Share them in comments below!