Our son now seems to love Disney World even more than we do. But when he was first diagnosed, I wasn't sure that we would ever get to go. How would my kid that struggles when he is in large crowds and obsesses over his favorite things ever be able to get through a day in the Magic Kingdom without melting down?
Then I found out about the Guest Assistance Card (GAC). It was a little bit of extra magic that Disney offered to guests with disabilities so that they could experience Disney World without their disability getting in the way. For us, that meant allowing Connor to go through the Fast Pass lane or the disabled access lane on most rides and allowing him to come back to certain rides over and over again. We were able to follow the schedule that was in his head without worrying about him running into a roadblock that might derail our entire vacation. This is a kid that talked for MONTHS about wanting to redo a 1 mile road race because he fell down once. He wants to take back that fall so that the race is perfect. Preventing problems like that is a pretty tall order. But Disney did it. And we have many happy, magical memories of our time spent there.
However, because of a few bad apples that defrauded the system, they have now introduced a new system - the Disability Access Service (DAS). After reading about the DAS, I know it won't work nearly as well as the GAC in accommodating my son's needs. We have actually used a similar system at both Universal Studios - Hollywood and at the Radiator Springs Racers ride in California Adventure at Disneyland. The problem that I see is that it requires you to check in at the ride and get a return time. Then you come back once the time written down has passed, and then you are allowed passage into the disabled queue or into the Fast Pass lane, depending on the ride. And you can only obtain one ride time at a time. So you can't get ride times for, say, Splash Mountain and Thunder Mountain Railroad so you can ride them in succession. You can only get the next ride's time after completing the prior one. That's an awful lot of downtime for a kid with autism, and there's only so much shopping you can do before you run out of places to take him to wait.
Many parents of kids with autism are saying that this system does not take their kids' needs into account. And despite Disney's promises that they will work with individuals based on their unique needs, many parents are being told "there's nothing else we can do" when they ask for more assistance. There has been much talk of this online as parents share their experiences and try to figure out how to work with Disney to ensure that their kids' needs are met. We parents still want to go, but we want to make sure that things will go well before we commit that much money to a vacation. We are used to having to plan and then make at least 3 backup plans, so finding out every detail we can is vital to making any vacation work. As is communicating all this to Disney to find out if there are other options available. We are not known for being subtle when advocating for our children.
However, there's also been a lot of backlash from non-disabled people. They say things like: "Why can't you just wait in line like everyone else?" "Why should you get preferential treatment?" "The new system is fair; you just have to wait like everyone else." "Just teach your kid to wait and behave." "People just got used to not having to put up with the bad sides of their kid's disability while at Disney."
I think most of these people just can't understand how behavior can be part of a disability. The reaction that you see, the meltdown and tantrum, is a manifestation of that disability because the conditions are intolerable to the child's nervous system. It's behavior, but it's not a "behavior problem." He's not being willful, and it can't be cured by disciplining him. It's a sign of a medical, neurological issue. His nervous system and brain prevents him from being able to tolerate long waits or being trapped in a long line with a crowd of people. It prevents him from being able to understand "we will come back later" to a ride he is fixated on.
The ride is tolerable because it's predictable. Lines, crowds, restaurants, shops, etc. are not always tolerable because of the level of unpredictable behavior that can happen. But a ride? My son has been to Disney World several times. We started with just a few rides and slowly increased his repertoire. He knows what to expect from the ride. He is focused on the rides. If we try to make him wait past his level of tolerance, his brain and nervous system will become overloaded with unpredictable input and that will cause him to have a meltdown.
Asking me to just put up with that meltdown is like telling the mother of a diabetic child to just put up with her child going into shock because their blood sugar is too low. Telling me to just discipline him is like telling that mother to just spank her child out of a diabetic coma.
It's like telling the mother of a child that uses a wheelchair to just have them crawl on the ground because allowing them to use a wheelchair is avoiding the "bad side of their disability." Or telling her she needs to just teach him to walk. Everyone else can do it, right?
My son's neurological system doesn't work like everyone else's. There are many things I wish I could "just teach" him to do - have a conversation, play with friends, and, yes, wait in line without getting upset. These are things we have been working on for over a decade now with an extensive team of teachers and therapists. Telling me to "just teach him" is not going to suddenly change his neurological condition so that he can learn these things faster. He's learning at his pace and working as hard as he possibly can, so in the meantime, he might need some accommodations to make the world livable for him.
I'm sorry some people find it irritating that his "wheelchair," his "insulin," his needed accommodation is the old GAC pass. However that will never stop me from advocating for his civil right to be allowed to go wherever non-disabled people go and for accommodations to be made so that his disability does not hinder his experience while there.