Mommy Frog's Note: With a little help from my niece, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we frogs have been learning more and more about the logistics of traveling with someone who has a disability. We are very hoppy to announce we'll be doing more coverage of traveling with disabilities in the coming weeks and months, so that we can pass along what we've learned. And hopefully learn from your experiences too!
We’re getting ready to hop on over to Disney's Typhoon Lagoon with our favorite niece! Since she has autism, we brushed up on some safety tips and rules, and are sharing them here for other families on the spectrum. Did you know kids with autism have a higher risk of injury around water? We didn’t either, but the details below take this important safety factor into consideration. We can’t wait to have fun in the sun and a toadally splashtastic time at the water park — and hope these tips will help you do the same.
Need a Life Jacket?
Lifejackets are available at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, Disney’s Blizzard Beach and all Disney World hotel pools at no charge. Sizes range from XS (infant/toddler) to XXL (large adult).
Universals’ Volcano Bay also has life vests in a range of sizes in several locations in the park.
At Aquatica Orlando, life jackets in a variety of sizes are available for use.
In peak times, plan on hopping over to the water parks early, to make sure you get a lifejacket in the size you need.
Kids with Autism Face Increased Risk at Water Parks
It’s a terrible combination. Many children on the spectrum are drawn to water, but due to physical and developmental reasons, can’t swim very well. This combination of loving pools and water features can lead to devastating consequences for autism families. Recent research says that children on the Autism spectrum are three times more likely to be injured in water than their typically developing counterparts. This does not mean you can’t enjoy your hotel pool or a water park when you go on vacation, though. Spending time around water will give you chances to practice safety and to let the tadpoles play in a secure environment.
Water Park Safety for Kids and Adults with Autism
While kids with Autism do faced an enhanced risk around water, one of the best things you can do is make sure they are familiar with water safety and practice in a safe, attentive environment. Experts recommend children with autism begin swimming lessons at a far earlier age than their neurotypical counterparts, just to offset the increased risk.
A visit to a waterpark like Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon or Universal's Volcano Bay can be a delightful experience for all of your froglets, provided you are aware of the potential increased risk your family should prepare for. Keep the following in mind to have a safe and toadally frogtastic time at the water park:
Take Typical Safety Precautions
When you visit a water park with your typically developing kids, you’re already aware of some safety precautions. A visit with a child with special needs like autism starts with these basics, and then adds on additional precautions. Note that while all water parks are well equipped with lifeguards, they can’t be everywhere. You’ll need to stay close to kids under 10 or those with special needs. I always pack a mini first aid kit in my park bag, just in case.
Pack and use plenty of waterproof sunscreen, wear water shoes (that pavement gets hot!) and stay hydrated. Froggies with special needs may need to be reminded of these safety rules more frequently, just in case.
Use a Life Jacket
Even if you don’t normally use a life jacket at home, your child with autism should wear one while in a hotel pool or at the water park. There are just too many kids and too much activity. A life jacket can give you peace of mind and ensure your child stays above water if he or she slips away from you. Some attractions are fast moving and end with a dip in a pool — this can be disorienting for any child; a vest will help them feel secure.
Keep in mind that some water parks will not allow you to bring your own water safety and floatation devices, unless they are medically necessary, so plan on using a park-supplied vest. Vests are available in all sizes, including adults, and should be worn at all times in the park or pool area.
Wear Waterproof ID
ID tags that go on a bracelet or around the neck can still be worn in the water. If your child won’t wear these reliably, you can use a waterproof tattoo, just in case. You can include your last name and phone number, so the lifeguards and water park staff can find you if you become separated.
Be Vigilant About Wandering
Wandering and elopement is always a risk for kids and adults with autism, but that risk goes up as soon as you enter the gates of a theme park. When you go into Disney's Blizzard Beach, your froglet can hop on over to any one of a number of slides, rides and water features, from tempting waves of Meltaway Bay to the cool and comfortable Cross Country Creek.
All that temptation means your child could wander away to get a closer look; take precautions to prevent wandering and it will be easier to keep your family together.
Review Water Park Safety Rules Before You Arrive
Before you arrive at the water park, talk about the rules your family has decided on. When our froggy family heads to the water park with a family member with autism, we make sure everyone is reminded to stay together. We also set up a home base that we can return to — and review what to do if we get lost. Depending on your child’s unique skill sets, he or she could remember and heed all of this, or none of it. If you don’t review the rules, though, he or she won’t have the chance to comply.
Use Social Stories for Water Park Success
Even if you do not typically use social stories, a visit to a water park may be a new thing; this can cause anxiety or worry for a child with autism. To offset this, visit the website of the water park, or view videos shot by other families.
Talk about the attractions and things to do, from water slides to the wave pool. If you break things down into steps, it will make the park visit more comfortable for your entire group. While rides vary, a typical water slide will include:
- Standing in line
- Climbing steps
- Picking a tube (optional)
- Sitting at the top of the slide
- Waiting for “Go”
- Sliding down
- SPLASH into the water
- Move to the side
- Climb out of the pool
It seems like a lot, but taking a look at the ride from the bottom and from any other angles you can and talking about what comes next at each step will help your child enjoy an unfamiliar ride. After a successful slide, they’ll likely want to play again and again, and may not need reminders for that particular attraction again.
Use Family Restrooms
It may take a child with autism longer to get dressed or use the restroom. All of the Orlando water parks have family restrooms — Universal’s Volcano Bay does a particularly frogtastic job of scattering these conveniently throughout the park.
Your entire family can enjoy the water park safely if you know what challenges to prepare for before you go and take some extra time getting acclimated. Once your child on the spectrum has some experience, he or she will likely become avid water park fans — and feel far more comfortable in this busy, sometimes noisy environment.
We love taking the entire froggy family to Universal’s Volcano Bay, SeaWorld's Aquatica, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach. Each of these destinations can be fully enjoyed by a child or adult on the spectrum, and despite thematic differences, each offers a wide range of attractions, from the slow, steady movement of the lazy river to the high-speed fun of water slides and tubing attractions.
Have a question about visiting a waterpark with a child who has autism or another disability? Have tips that have worked for you or your family? We'd love to hear them!