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 with autism join us on visits and offer some pointers on navigating the parks. While some information remains the same (such as using Disney World’s Disability Access Service), 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 theme parks' disability services, including Disney World's DAS, Disneyland's DAS, Universal Orlando Resort's AAP and Universal Studios Hollywood's AAP.
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 they are seen as a conventional, neurotypical adult, then behavior that is part of their 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 their disability. They 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 they are.
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 passengers with disabilities 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 their space is invaded or they are 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, the dog will be permitted on the plane, but the passenger that 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 the person 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, the person you are traveling with 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
Theme parks have services for people who have trouble waiting a conventional queue. They can allow people with autism to use an alternate entrance and wait outside the line until it is their turn to enter the alternate entrance. This way the person can manage their environment while they wait.
Depending on the park you might, start your trip with a visit to Guest Services, if you need to acquire a disability pass for the length of your stay. For Disneyland and Disney World, you can now set up Disability Access Service (DAS) in advance via online chat. You can also set it up in the park if you like. One nice feature is that you can set up two rides for each day your visit in advance. Once you are in the park, you can reserve your own return times in the app.
For Universal parks, you set up the Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP) in person and receive the times to return from a team member at the attractions. Other theme parks have similar programs, but the actual process can vary. Most do not require any proof of disability; however, Six Flags does require a letter from a doctor. These services will provide you with specific accommodations that your party member needs to feel comfortable.
Here are some hopful links to learn more about the services at each park and how to set them up:
- Disneyland DAS
- Disney World DAS
- Universal Studios Hollywood AAP
- Universal Orlando AAP
- Overview of Special Needs at the Southern California Theme Parks & Zoos
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 over-enthusiastic ride attendant could place an adult into a ride vehicle alone. 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 (Haunted Mansion, Spaceship Earth, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, The Little Mermaid or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, although that ride has a separate loading area you can ask about if you need more time). Being aware of this and taking your companion by the hand can prevent separation, as attendants may just see “adult” and direct them accordingly.
Keep an eye on your party members in large crowd situations, such as fireworks. This is especially true after the show ends when large amounts of people are on the move. It helps to have a phone on the them if they can text and a plan of what to do if you do get separated. It's best to avoid it in the first place though. If they are nonverbal, you can place a sticker on them with your phone number like you would a small child. Maybe plan to stay still until the crowd disperses or watch from a less-crowded area if crowds are challenging for your party.
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.
Most menus are on park apps and available online. Looking those over in advance can help prevent anxiety about what to eat. There are chicken tenders and fries? Whew! What a relief! I don't have to worry about being hungry.
Restrooms: You Have Options for Privacy and Space
There are family restrooms and companion rest rooms 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.
Another safety issue could be overheating. Some people who are not neurotypical can sense temperature differently. Our friend does not sweat, so he goes on water rides or brings a spray water bottle with a fan to stay cool. He uses his waiting periods between rides to stay out of the sun.
Full face characters, or those that wear masks, such as 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. The characters who can talk can usually engage better with the adults. Our adult friend who has autism charms all the princesses at Disney. They shower him with attention in return, much to his enjoyment.
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, and in many cases, they’ve gone further than the ADA requires to ensure the entire family feels safe and welcome.
Ride and Show Prep
Many people who have autism like to know what is going to happen. Show them ride and show videos in advance and provide park maps. It helps them feel more comfortable and less anxious. We have most ride and show videos on our YouTube channel.
In addition to having a different way of accessing rides, you might have a different waiting area for a show. You might get to choose your seating with other guests with disabilities so it best meets your needs. Plan your seats carefully, especially if you think you might need to make a quick escape during a show. Just be sure to communicate your needs to an attendant in advance and they will guide you on what to do.
Taking some time to prepare before you go. Being aware of the potential problems can help your entire family have a toadally awesome time in Orlando or SoCal.
Have tips or questions about traveling with an adult with autism. Share them in comments below!
Related: Overview of Disney's Disability Access Service