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Taking a Practice Vacation.

Autism Friendly CARD CropMany parents of children with ASD tell us that they are somewhere between worried and terrified when they think of taking a vacation. If this is you, your concerns are quite natural. If new things and the unknown are a potential issue, then a week in a strange place could seem daunting.  There are plenty of things that you can do in advance in order to decrease your worries/terror but what are they?

As with so many other things of the more regular challenges that you face, some advance practice will help when it comes to the real thing. But how do you practice a vacation? Let’s break it down into some of its components.

Flights. We covered some possibilities with a prior post on Practice Boarding Programs. For details of that post, click here. We are currently in touch with all of the providers of these programs and will soon be publishing an update.

Dining Out. This can sometimes be a challenge. We covered this topic a while back with a guest posting from parent coach Connie Hammer. For details of that post, click here. That was an excellent piece and would add one further suggestion. Practice by using one of the popular chain restaurants. For example, if there is an Olive Garden at your chosen destination you can be confident that it will be very similar to your local Olive Garden. Pick your own chain. We are not endorsing any particular brand.

Staying in a hotel. At its simplest, book a night at any local hotel and give it a try. If it’s local, then getting there isn’t a problem. It should also be relatively easy to find a date when their rates are lowest so that the cost is kept within bounds.

Hotels vary, of course and you could use the “chain” logic from above. Most of the big hotel chains put a lot of effort into trying to ensure that their product is consistent from location to location.

But wouldn’t it be even better if you knew in advance that the hotel was autism-friendly? Of course it would. It would be absolutely superb if you could find that autism-friendly hotel and get a really good “practice” rate, wouldn’t it? There is and we found it.

You do have a chance to do a short-stay at an autism-friendly hotel and at an exceptionally good rate.

The Crowne Plaza in Tampa, Florida has been designated Autism-friendly by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of South Florida (USF). We asked them for a very special rate for families with ASD to be able to practice and they gave us just that for the weekend of June 27th.

Since CARD have done such a great job with inspecting local businesses and training them in how to assist guests with autism, it turns out that some great local attractions have also been designated autism-friendly via their program. They include the Florida Aquarium, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, Dinosaur World and the Glazer Children’s Museum. When we contracted each of them, they were delighted to offer special, reduced rates for anybody doing the Practice Vacation at Crowne Plaza that weekend.

Click here to take a look at all of the details. We worked on this to enable you to have the chance to practice a vacation under the best possible circumstances. If you need help getting there, contact us. We will be delighted to help you.

Take your village with you on vacation.

bigstock-Hand-in-hand-19677104It takes a village. When we are raising special needs children, we probably need our particular village more than most. If we rely on that support at home, it will help to have some of it while on vacation. We’re not suggestion here that you take the whole village! But let’s look at some members that could accompany you. Here are a couple of possibilities.

Your Parents. They are, of course, your child’s grandparents and that makes them a good starting point when looking for somebody to vacation with you. The pluses are that they know and love your child. With luck they interact enough at home that they are a very real source of support. With further luck, they will pay their own way or even assist you with some part of your cost. One potential downside is that one spouse’s parents are, by definition, the other’s parents-in-law. There are a million mother-in-law jokes out there. If yours served as the inspiration for a half million, you need to look at some of the other suggestions below.

Other Family. As with grandparents, your child’s aunts and uncles may already be a significant part of your support network. Again, with luck, there’s a good chance that they will shoulder their part of the cost. That is a little less likely to apply with your nieces and nephews if they are school or college students but, if you can subsidize them a little, they may be a very real source of support. Additionally if they are students, their breaks will coincide with your child’s school breaks. If you are really, really lucky you have a relative who is a teacher. They need to vacation during school breaks just as you do and their expertise is dealing with children.

Getting Family There. Very few of us live in a physical village anymore and it is perfectly possible that your extended family live clear across the country from you. That doesn’t have to be a barrier. It just needs a little more planning when it comes to having everybody get to the same place at the same time. That isn’t difficult. Of course, we do this for clients all the time. One note of caution on this. You may strain some of your family relationships if you pick a destination that is a short non-stop flight for you but requires 3 connecting flights over many, many hours for your family! You’ll need to plan on a destination that makes sense for everybody.

The other thing that can be really great, if your family is dispersed like that, is that you get to enjoy a family reunion and have fun doing so.

Friends.  Your friends are, probably, local to you. Your children probably know their children. Traveling with friends can be enormous fun and you may get the chance to take turns with all of the children and, therefore, have turns of getting a break. There will be a difference between traveling with friends who have typically developing children and friends who also have children with special needs. Either case can still be wonderful. You just need to think a little in advance about the interactions. If you do wish to vacation with friends who live a long way away, just apply the same thinking as above.

Members of a local support group. Here, almost certainly, you’ll be traveling with others who face issues that are similar to yours. There are a couple of really great things about this. The first is acceptance. They know that if your child has a meltdown due to sensory overload that this is exactly what it is. They won’t be muttering about bad behavior because they’ve been there, they’ve done that and they have the tee-shirt!

The other really great thing about traveling with another family from a local support group is that it can help to tighten the bonds within the group. We actively encourage you to ask members of whichever groups where you belong, if they would consider vacationing with you.

So, in summary, who are your villagers and which ones will make for good traveling companions and good support?

10 tips on airline baggage fees.

bigstock-Pile-of-various-styles-of-old--16539629The airline industry in the US charged $ 1.7 Billion of baggage fees in the first 6 months of 2012. You can be sure that later figures, when published will be even higher.

How does anybody avoid them? If they can’t be avoided, can they at least be kept sensible? How might they impact our families more than others?

Let’s start with that last question. It is quite possible that in order to accommodate your child’s special needs, you will need to bring extra things that are unique to your situation. We’ll address some of those later on but first should try to give some thoughts that should be useful to everybody.

The first and obvious thing to note is that all of these fees are confusing and that, probably, a tidy part of that very big number above arose out of passengers not understanding the fee structure. Here are some tips:

1. Read your airline’s policy. Do this before packing and allocating your things to the various pieces of luggage. See note about pre-purchasing below.

We have found a site that seems to be pretty good at keeping up to date with the policies of most of the domestic airlines. It is: AirlineBagFees.com That said, the fees do keep on changing and it makes sense to check with your airline’s site in addition to this one.

2. Understand that policies are expressed per person. What matters here is that if, say, the first checked bag is free, then for a family of 2 adults and 2 children it gives you a total of 4 bags free.

3. Understand that charges are applied in both directions. Whatever the fee, it will be applied both on the flight out and on the flight home.  It may even be worse. We have heard of at least 1 airline that charges for bags by the segment. If you are unfortunate enough to have connecting flights, that may mean charges for 4 flights, 2 in each direction.

4. Avoid multiple charges. Many, but not all, airlines compound their charges. What? For an oversize, over weight bag, they can charge you their basic bag fee plus the oversize fee plus the over weight limit fee. Yes, it is possible to end up paying over $ 200 for one bag. It is highly likely that 2 bags that are within their limits will cost less than 1 bag that exceeds both.

5. Measure and weigh. Size limits are set in terms of width plus depth plus height. If in doubt, read how to measure on your airline’s website. Weigh before you go. You may have 1 bag that is over the limit and others that are well under. It will certainly pay to distribute the weight evenly and avoid the over limit charge on that 1 bag.

6. Know the rules for Carry-on items. Spirit Airlines were the first to start charging for carry-on bags. They won’t be the last. Even so they distinguish between carry-on bags that need to go in the overhead bins and “personal items” which can go under the seat in front of you. They don’t charge for the latter but both items have size limits.

Most airlines don’t currently charge for carry-on bags but they are still the subject of size limitations and you should know these in advance. If you have something that turns out to be too big, you may have to “gate check” it and that may incur an additional fee.

If you avoid that complication, you should be able to bring 1 carry-on bag plus 1 personal item for each passenger without charge.

7. Look before you book. It may be useful to look at what the airlines’ bag fees are while comparing fares before you book. It is possible to have 2 fares on a route where fare A is only cheaper if you don’t check a bag and where fare B, which looked higher, actually turns out to be better if you are checking bags. Additionally, some fees are lower if you pay for them at the time of booking than they are if you pay at a later stage.

Now what about the special considerations for families traveling with autism?

8. Consider other factors when booking. Don’t get totally hung up on bag fees. Do remember that there are other factors than bag fees, or even total price, to consider when booking flights. You need to look carefully at routing and timing in order to find flights that best suit your child’s needs. Take a look back at our posting Which Flight ? Which Seat ?

9. Take special care about carry-on versus personal item. Again remember that the limits are per person. If you are a family of 5, that will give you 5 personal items, for any airline plus 5 carry-ons with those that allow these free.

Your special considerations should take account of what needs to be in the personal item. When the airplane is taxiing, taking off and landing you cannot access whatever is in the overhead bins. Have one or more of the personal items contain things like the iPad and other non-electronic games/pastimes are needed. Also make sure that any medications that you need are easily accessible.

10. Figure if shipping ahead is a better option. We have advised some parents to take familiar pillows and other items of bedding from home so that you have familiar feeling and smelling items for children who may have sleeping issues. Weight isn’t the problem here so much as bulk. Oversize is your constraint. It may make sense to ship these items ahead via UPS or similar if they would cause problems with regular sized luggage. If, however, you can get them get them into your bags without exceeding the limits, they do make good soft insulation for breakable items.

11. Call your travel agent for help. We don’t know of any travel agent that will come and pack for you. Even we can’t offer that! Your travel agent should, however, be prepared to check policies for you in advance and give you some assistance with planning. By the way, we do appreciate that this is tip number 11 when we promised 10 but just consider this “going the extra mile”. We always do.

2 Calls that will make things easier at the airport.

bigstock-Dog-On-The-Phone-44086108For many of our families one of their biggest concerns when taking a vacation is getting through the airport. Who can blame them? For travelers without special needs, there is nothing likeable about the crowds, the long lines and the waiting. Those things are all, potentially, much worse when traveling with a child on the spectrum.

Fortunately there are 2 calls that you can make ahead of time that will help with these issues. Actually, in the right circumstances, it is possible to do this all with a single call.

A Single Call.

The other 2 calls are still needed but, if you booked through a travel agent, ask him/her to make them on your behalf. (In fact we do this for every client who books with us without having to wait for the client to suggest it!)

Even if your travel agent doesn’t have any experience in working with autism, you can still make just the 1 call. The only difference is that you’ll need to explain to your agent who to call and why. So here is the who and the why.

Two calls. First, your airline.

Airlines vary. Some airlines have special phone numbers that are assigned for Special Needs traveler assistance. For some you just call the main number and, of course, there are some that don’t even put a phone number on their website. Not even on the Contact Us page! If you have one in that last category, you can try www.tollfreeairline.com for the number.

In any event, you will need to tell the airline which passenger has autism and ask them to note it into the record. It will pay to add an explanation that your child doesn’t do well with crowds or lines or waiting or any combination of these. Keep that description short so that other airline staff can quickly read the information when needed. See below about staff reading computer displays.

Some operate 2 or more cabin classes. Some offer only 1 cabin class but pre-assign seats. Others have a single cabin and no pre-assigned seating. One part of what you are asking for will vary accordingly.

If you are flying in a multi-cabin aircraft, ask for permission to check in at the business class or first class desk at the airport. The lines are much shorter than for coach class. If they tell you that this is OK, ask them to note that in the record also. Of course not every airline will do this and even the one that has done it before may not do it the next time but it’s always worth asking.

Your second request is going to be to ask them that they note the record to the effect that you are eligible for priority boarding. With pre-assigned seats, airlines generally permit people with special needs to board even ahead of the priority customers (business class, frequent flyers etc).  Since autism isn’t a mobility issue, they will probably have you board immediately after people in wheelchairs. Without pre-assign seats this is even more important. They just have priority boarding and then everybody else.

As a further word on this; even though you’ve asked for things to be noted in the record, you need to know that the full record probably isn’t immediately visible to the staff member in front of you. It is, however, something they will be able to see, if you ask them to look for it. Try going to the gate agent (which you should do as soon as you can) and explaining that you are traveling with somebody with ASD and that you have been told that you are eligible for priority boarding. They’ll possibly just take your word for it. If they don’t that is the time to politely ask them to look at the record since it has already been noted.

Two calls. Second, TSA.

The Transport Security Administration (TSA) frequently gets bad press because they’ve been inconsiderate or just plain nasty with somebody. That is such a pity! Overall, they’re pretty decent with people that are decent to them but, more than that, they can be positively wonderful with our families. You need to call them and ask for their help!

You need to call the TSA Cares Hotline on 1-855-787-2227, Option 2.

They will ask you for your name and phone number. Once you’ve done that, explain to them that one or more of your passengers has autism and that you would like to arrange for a Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) in order to assist with screening. They will arrange for somebody in that role to contact you and make arrangements to meet you at the airport and assist you through the process.

Both the person that you speak to on the phone and your PSS can explain the process and help you with permitted “work-arounds” for things that might otherwise give you problems. Make no mistake, everybody has to go through screening but your PSS is dedicated to making it as easy as possible for your special passenger. Be sure to give them your cell # so that a PSS at your destination can contact you about the return flight, if that is a domestic flight.

We cannot stress enough, how great some of these Specialists have been for our clients. Perhaps we can best illustrate with a family at JFK Terminal 4 (it’s a doozy). Their PSS met them at the door and it took just 15 minutes from curbside to the far side of security – in the middle of a holiday weekend!

Avoiding the Crowds.

Equestrian_lil girlChildren with ASD can have difficulties with crowded places. That can be anywhere from absolutely unbearable to manageable but with some discomfort. Many of the places that you might think of for vacationing with your spectrum child are crowded. Disneyworld comes immediately to mind but there are plenty of other examples.

Families with children on the spectrum have an additional problem. So much of our support at home is built around the school calendar that we can only think of taking a vacation when school is out. Guess what ? That’s when the most crowded places are at their busiest !

Going off-season is an option but one that needs a little thought. For most destinations, high season is the time at which they are most desirable and low season when they are least. For example, the Jersey Shore isn’t crowded in January and February but just how much fun will it be playing on the beach and swimming in the ocean at that time ?

Very fortunately, there is an exception and it works out well for families who want to vacation with ASD kids. Mountain resorts/ski destinations, are that exception. For them, high season is the winter. Duh ! That’s when they have the snow ! They are, however, still very desirable during the summer.

The weather is good and the humidity is low. There are lots of recreational activities available. These can include; horseback riding, cycling, trekking, boating, swimming – just to name a few. Calling it boating really doesn’t do it justice. Just within that term, you can incorporate sailing, kayaking, water skiing, paddle boarding and many others.

For our families, this abundance of choice is a particular blessing. It is likely that a spectrum child won’t like or cannot be successful at a number of them but, with so many choices available, it is also likely that they will find some where they can succeed and can really enjoy them.

This is all very well but what about specialized support and specialized instruction with these recreational activities ? Wouldn’t we want that too ? Here’ some really great news. There are programs out there that provide exactly that ! We’ll give some examples further on in this post.

These programs, in general, started out as winter sports based and dealing with mobility-challenged participants. Whatever their origins, they now serve clients with all sorts of different abilities and they have summer programs. For some programs, they tell us that people with autism represent their largest single group. If your child can get expert instruction with whichever activity, that will allow you to relax and enjoy whatever activity you choose.

Although we are speaking here mainly about summer programs, don’t forget the winter sports opportunities. Think about it. On its busiest day of the year, Grouse Mountain (Beaver Creek, CO) is considerably less crowded than Space Mountain (you know where) on its quietest day of the year.

Here’s something else that helps us. Most of these programs charge a fee that is well below their actual cost. The difference comes from donations and sponsors. This enables them to offer the most amazing value for money.

Let’s look at some examples (in alphabetic order):

Adaptive Sports Center, Crested Butte, CO.

ASC offer summer and winter programs. They work with a whole range of abilities. Tuition can be 1:1 for your spectrum child or in small groups (i.e. the whole family). Their staff can help you to figure out the right combination.

Getting there ? You can fly into Denver (DEN) or to Gunnison (GUC). The advantage to Denver is just the number of non-stop flights from so many points of origin. The downside is that, after the flight, you are still a 4-plus hour drive away. The advantage of Gunnison is that you are much closer to the destination. Here the downside is the limited number of non-stop flights.

Challenge Aspen, Aspen CO.

Challenge Aspen meets the needs of a variety of disabilities. However, they have a specialized Challenge Autism program. This is a day camp that they offer: 3 sessions, each a week-long, run during the summer (late June to mid-July). 2 sessions run in the winter (March). Instructors/volunteers have been specifically trained in assisting guests with ASD. They send social stories for participants in advance of arrival and use visual schedules.

Getting there ? Here your choices are Denver (DEN) with a 3-plus hour drive or Aspen (ASE).

National Ability Center, Park City, UT.

They have a series of day camps running from mid-June until the end of August, running from 9-4 each day. They offer instruction in most all of the activities that we mentioned above. Their largest category of guests has ASD.

Let’s give a quote from Tracy Meier, their Training and Education Manager:

“The Adventurers camp is an opportunity for children on the autism spectrum to experience summer camp in a safe, understanding environment that is positive and fun. Campers are supported and encouraged to try new activities in a step by step process that works for and with them. We believe that each child should have opportunity to build self-confidence and be provided with challenges that they can accomplish. Camp offers so many benefits for our participants and their families. Not only recreation and play, but a great avenue for socialization.

Our team truly enjoys working with each camper and having each child be successful. There is nothing better than seeing a smile on their face at the end of the week when they receive their award and their parents, siblings, and fellow campers cheer them on!”

Getting there ? There are lots of non-stop flights into Salt Lake City (SLC). Park City is about a 45-minute drive from there.

Vail/Beaver Creek Ski Schools, CO.

For the moment, they offer winter sports programs only but, we are told, they’re working on summer programs.

Flights can be to Denver (DEN) 2 hours away or to Vail/Eagle (EGE) which is minutes away.


So now you can give your child open space rather than heaving crowds. You can relax and know that they are safe and having fun.

This blog is never an advertising pitch. That said, do contact us and ask for help with arranging suitable flights, car rentals and accommodation. That, after all, is what we do.

10 Things to Take With You.

Sensory ShieldIf you need us to remind you about taking things like clothing (appropriate to destination, of course) or toiletries or travel documents, then it’s been a really, really long time since you took a vacation ! Stop reading and call us now ! Otherwise, we’ll focus this on things that are specific for kids on the spectrum.

1. The Autism Passport.  This document gives you a way to communicate your child’s individual needs to your hotel/resort/cruise ship. It lets you describe your child’s communication and sensory needs to those service providers. It makes sense to send it in advance of your arrival in addition to carrying a copy with you.

This can be printed on both sides of a letter-sized piece of paper and folded down the middle to make a small booklet. Click here for printable PDF

Just to “toot our own horn”, we developed the Autism Passport and are thrilled that it has been so well received wherever it’s been used.

2. Social Stories. If your child makes good use of social stories for activities at home, you will be able to make great use of them for vacation. Enlist the help of whoever did those other stories to prepare something for Getting There, whether by road, rail or air, and for what you are going to do when you get there: playing on the beach or in the pool, dining out, riding in theme parks, trail biking … whatever you have planned.

3. Favorite Snacks. This makes sense even if your child doesn’t have special dietary needs. Of course, if they do have a special diet, you may not want to chance a hunt for, say, GFCFSF snacks in a strange town/state/country. No matter what, snacks that you know to be favorites will be better than having to make do with “best available”. And you never know when you’ll need them. Maybe a take-off delay at the airport or a lack of suitable places to make a stop while on the road ?

4. Medications. If your child takes medications, you’ll certainly remember to bring them but think just a little further. Take a bigger supply than you would need for the number of days that you are away. Lose just 1 pill, in any one of a dozen ways that it could happen, and you’re suddenly calling around to get a prescription filled ?

If your child also needs a PRN medication, remember that there may be more occasions when you’ll need these than you might have at home. Take plenty.

5. iPad. Whatever did we do before we had these ? They are portable. You have all of your child’s favorite apps with you. If you have a couple of favorites that tend to absorb or calm your child, you may be really thankful for having them with you. It may also make sense to download a couple of new apps that you think that your child will enjoy based upon what you know already works. Something new may take more time to master and be more absorbing.

Don’t forget to take the charger !

6. Favorite toys or games. Even when you remember to take that charger, there will be times when the iPad needs recharging. Additionally, when flying, there is a period during take-off and landing when electronic devices are not allowed. Look at those favorite toys and games and pick the ones that are easily portable. (Leave the pool table at home, no matter how well favored !)

7. Headphones. We described some of the problems with unfamiliar noises in our post Protecting Sensitive Ears. Headphones will, obviously, be useful if music is soothing and you have that IPad. If music doesn’t work or you don’t use an iPad, there are noise-cancelling headphones that you can purchase inexpensively from sporting goods/hunting stores.

8. Child-proofing Kit. Is your child an escape-artist ? Do they wander off ? Travel-Tot of New Jersey have a portable child-proofing kit that may help. Everything in it is easy attach/easy remove and, therefore, suitable for use in places like hotel rooms.

9. Child ID. This also applies if you have a wanderer. There are 2 things that you might need. First you’ll need something that stays with the child which identifies them and gives your cell phone number. Card, bracelet, something attached to clothing ? There are plenty of choices out there.

It is also a sensible precaution to have an up-to-date description sheet with a recent photo, your child’s current height and weight and, again, your emergency contact details. If your child does wander off, you have something to give to security staff in order to assist with searching for them.

10. The Sensory Shield. Strictly speaking, you can’t take this with you yet since it is still in the final stages of prototype testing. When, however, The Sensory Shield Airplane Seat Partition is ready, it will be really useful as a transportable barrier to unwanted sensory input on the plane. We’ve followed the progress of Lisa Daly, who developed this, based upon her own experiences and wants to make it available to everybody. The device is approved by both the FAA and TSA so that you have no worries when you do take it. It is pictured at the top of this post.

Did we cover everything that you might need for your child ? Probably not.  Are some of these things just not applicable to you child ? Probably so.

Your child is unique and has their individual needs. It is really a question of knowing those needs and matching them with what to expect while on vacation. Pick up the phone, call us and let us help you develop your list whether that’s 10 things or 20.

Change Happens.

TPPWhen asking the general population why they take a vacation, two answers predominate. The biggest reason given is to get a break from stress. But the # 2 answer is “to gain new experiences”. Wow ! That can sometimes be a huge challenge for our kids, can’t it ?

A break from stress. Yes, we do need that more than most. If the 24/7 lifestyle is what everybody else is experiencing, ours is more like 36/8 and a break from this will help us which, in turn, will help our children. Do you remember the part of a flight safety presentation where they tell you that, when it happens, you should put your oxygen mask on before helping others ? There’s a very good reason for that. You won’t be able to help anybody very much if you don’t.   The same thing applies to taking a break. If we don’t do that, we actually reduce our capacity to help our kids.

New experiences ? For many children, on the spectrum, almost anything out of the regular routine can be a challenge. A vacation, almost by definition, is a change of routine. That said we live in a constantly changing world and cannot possibly isolate our children from all of the changes.

In our daily lives, we try to keep regular, and comforting, routines in place so that we can help our children cope with changes that are unavoidable. When taking a vacation, you need to use that same strategy. How ?

Very often, social stories help. Depending upon who is preparing the story, you may be able to have it point to things that will be just like their regular routine alongside showing what is going to be different and how to react to those differences. Do you use social stories for other things with your child ? Who generates them ? Can they do it for this purpose ?

Going to the airport, and getting through it, are definitely not routine. We’ve previously written about Airport Practice Boarding Programs and will update that information soon. When we do that, we’ll also tackle what to do if there are no programs near to you.

Whether you drive to your vacation destination or fly, it will take some time. There are some things that you can do in order to keep things “familiar” during that time. Start with your iPad (or similar) device. Lots of kids have these and make great use of them. These are familiar to your child from home and they are portable ! If your child uses one, it is an essential for your vacation. Of course, you need a non-electronic equivalent for when the device is recharging or for take-off and landing on the aircraft when use of electronic devices isn’t allowed. The same principle applies. Look for the more portable items among the things that your child enjoys and take some with you.

If your vacation involves renting a car, you can try to rent something that is similar to your car at home. If you drive a compact, rent a compact. If you drive a min-van, rent a mini-van. You probably won’t be able to get the exact same make and model at you drive at home. Just make it as familiar as possible.  In many locations Alamo/National rents you a car in the desired class and then tells you to pick out any car that you want in the row for that class. This may help you to find something that is “right color” as well as “right size”.

Staying at a hotel can hardly be described as routine either. If you think that this may be a struggle for your child, you can always “practice” with an overnight stay at a hotel that is local to you. This can be taken a stage further when you plan to stay with one of the bigger national, or international, brands. Even though they vary somewhat from property to property, most of them try to build and furnish to a common standard. They’re trying to establish a uniform standard for their whole brand. You get to use that uniformity to help your child make the hotel room a little bit closer to routine.

Some kids on the spectrum aren’t such good sleepers. If this is the case, you might try bringing a pillow and pillow case from home. It may even pay to bring sheets from home. You can either pack them, if you have room, or ship them ahead to your hotel and ask them to hold the package for your arrival. You might also bring along a couple of other portable items from your child’s bedroom. Do they have a night-light ? That should be easy to bring along. Take a look at other items, toys in particular, that may help.

Here’s a thought that catches quite a few people by surprise. What about change of season ? If, just for example, you leave North Dakota in February for a vacation in the Caribbean, you won’t be putting your child in winter coats and snow boots ! If you’re going to have a change of season like this, it may just help to crank up the heating up home a couple of times and re-familiarize your child with summer clothing.

There are dozens more little things that you can do. Which of them you actually need to do will depend entirely on your unique child. Nobody knows your child better than you.  Think ahead. Think portable.

Once you’ve done whatever needs to be done to make things a little more familiar, you’ll be ready for two things. Firstly, you’ll be better placed to deal with unfamiliar things that come up and that you hadn’t anticipated. Secondly, you’ll be in a better position to deliberately try some new things that your child might enjoy and will surprise you by doing so.

Theme Parks: Tickets, Meals and Wheels.

HRH DiningIn previous postings we covered Special Accessibility Passes, where to stay and how to time your park visiting. Here we’ll cover the best Park Ticket options, where to eat and how to get around. As you might expect, some of the advice for kids on the spectrum is different from that for others.

Park Tickets. Disney has the most parks and, naturally enough, this means that their pricing structure is the most complicated. Let’s try to clarify that.

Their tickets are set up as a “Base” ticket with available options. There are no discounts on 1-day and 2-day tickets but, after that, additional days are discounted. After Day 4, you are only adding $ 10 per day for additional days.

Those Base tickets are only good for 1 park each day. In order to visit more than 1 park on a single day, you add the Park Hopper option. That adds about $ 50 to each person’s ticket for the duration of the base ticket.

You may also buy the Water Park option which will give you admission to the Disney water parks. That will also add about $ 50 per person for the duration of the base ticket. Of course, you can add both options for $ 100 per person.

The remaining possibility is to add the “no expiration date” option. This works in the reverse fashion to the pricing of the base ticket. The longer the pass, the more it costs to add this option.

You may purchase the options at the same time as the base ticket or you may add them at Guests Services at any time that you choose.

That’s the structure. What works for our families ? We recommend purchasing the Base ticket in advance with no options. Here’s why.  Let’s start with the fact that about 2 out of 3 people that purchase Park Hopper don’t end up visiting  more than one park on the same day. They pay for a feature that they don’t use ! That includes all of those people who aren’t even planning on taking a break from the parks in the middle of the day.

You, probably, will plan to take that break. Either you’ll go early and leave as the crowd gets to a peak in the middle of the day and that will be your total visit for the day. If so, you didn’t need the Hopper option. Or, you will go early, leave for a while and then return. If you return to the same park, you still don’t need the Hopper. If you do decide to make a second visit of the day AND you want to go to a different park, NOW you do need to purchase the Hopper option. Once you’ve done that, the option is good for the duration of your Base ticket.

Do you need the Water Park option ? Not if you’re looking for it to be your “quiet” retreat. Make no mistake, these water parks get busy too. The quiet water activity for the middle of the day is your hotel pool (everybody else is out at the parks) and that doesn’t need a ticket at all. It could be that you adopt a plan that goes like this: theme park – early, quiet break – middle of the day, water-park – towards the end of the day. If your child really likes water slides, this may be a good plan and, in this case, it will be worth adding the option.

Do you need the “no expiration” option ? Get out your spreadsheet and do the math. We’ll give you a hint in order to save you from doing that. Two 5-day tickets with expiration dates are actually cheaper than one 10-day ticket with no expiration. Our guess is that you are highly unlikely to get value from this option.

Now let’s look at Universal. You only have 2 parks to think about. The same principle applies, as with Disney, when looking at how many days the ticket covers. Additional days become progressively less expensive.  They are different, however when it comes to visiting different parks on the same day. On a 1-day ticket, the difference between the 2-park and 1-park options is only $ 36. By the time you get to a 4-day ticket, the difference is only $ 10. The other factor in this choice is that their parks are right next to each other. If you walk from the ride nearest to the gate at Islands of Adventure to the walk nearest to the gate at Universal Studios, your total walk time is about 6 minutes. Our recommendation here is to do the 2-park tickets and benefit from the flexibility that this gives you. Of course, as recommended in our posting on accessibility, you should bundle in Unlimited Express access.

Dining Options.  If you have opted to stay at a Disney hotel and to limit it to Disney Parks, you will get value from a Disney Dining Plan. Ditto for Universal. Disney has 3 plans, Universal has 1. It should cost less than paying as you go along.

In both cases the plan is good for their on-site restaurants. The Universal plan is 1 table service meal, 1 counter service meal and 1 snack per day. Disney offer a similar plan but also offer a lesser option (no table service, 2 counter service meals, 1 snack) or a higher option (3 table service meals and 2 snacks).

If, however, you don’t plan to spend all day at the parks and you’re not staying on-site, you will be better to pay as you go and to eat away from the parks and the on-site hotels. But where ?


Here is something very useful. We all know that the unfamiliar can be a challenge. This is just as much so, if not more so, when it comes to eating out. Orlando has every possible “chain” represented and, in lots of cases, represented in several locations. Take, as an example but with no recommendation one way or another, Olive Garden. There are 3 in Orlando and there is probably one somewhere near to you at home. Since they are all pretty much the same inside, you get to “practice” locally before you go –as many times as you want. In Orlando, you get to dine in a place that’s familiar. Try the same thought for any restaurant chain that you like and that works well for your child or, at least, that you can try with your child.

Getting Around. We are full of admiration for Disney’s transportation. It is clean, covers everything and is formidably efficient. That may not actually be enough for you and your child. If you are staying at a Disney hotel and only visiting Disney parks, you could rely on their Magical Express (transfers to/from the airport) and their internal transportation between hotels and parks.

The downside is that they operate to their schedule and their routes. Imagine that you want to leave the park early because your child is heading towards being overwhelmed. Do you need the complication of having to wait around for the transportation and having to make numerous stops, and/or changes, on the way back to the quiet of your hotel room ? You might be better to have rented a car (Orlando is reasonably inexpensive for car rentals) and to be able to go there directly. You’ll still need to know that the parking lots are enormous and that you need the shuttle from the park entrance to where you are parked but that is, relatively, quick and easy.

Here’s a tip that we thought that everybody knew but it turns out that some don’t. It will work for pretty much any parking lot but is particularly useful in the huge lots and where you may not even remember the make of the rental car let alone model and color. When you can’t find your car, hold the key up and hit the “panic” button (almost every car key has one). You’ll be able to hear your car from quite some distance away and locate it. Out of consideration to others, you will cancel the panic once you’ve spotted your car, won’t you ?

If you are not staying at a Disney hotel, you could opt to take bus transfers to the hotel and to stay at a hotel that offers shuttle service to Disney or to Universal or to both. The problem with that is that you have all of the downside mentioned above and most of the other services aren’t as well run as Disney so the problems could be worse.

We think that car rental works best for our families in almost all circumstances. Here is another consideration. It’s back to that familiar/unfamiliar thing. If you drive a compact car at home, it makes sense to rent a compact car there. If you drive a large SUV at home, which is your child going to find more familiar, an SUV or a compact ? Rent accordingly. As a word of caution, don’t take this concept too far. Don’t look for the exact same model as you drive at home. Most rental companies give examples of the type of car that falls into each class and they do it by showing a particular model. For example; compact car like a Kia Rio (or similar). It’s the “or similar” that causes the problem. If you drive a Rio at home, the odds are that you’ll get there and they’ll have 5 different compacts and not one of them is a Rio.

The remaining thought on car rentals is; off-airport or on-airport ? The less expensive rental companies tend to operate from an off-airport lot. Make sure that the lower cost is worthwhile. For an off-site lot, you’ll need a shuttle to and from the lot and that is yet another transition. If the price difference for the type of car that you want isn’t that big, it may pay to use the more convenient on-airport rental company.

We’ve covered a lot over this and the two previous posts but it is quite possible that we haven’t touched on something that’s going to be important to you or your family. What do you do if this is the case ? You contact us for that extra information. Get the information that you need for you. We’ll help.

Theme Parks, Other Things to Consider.

Portofino Bay HotelA previous posting covered Special Accessibility Passes. Here we’ll give you some thoughts on where to stay and on when to visit the parks. In our next posting we’ll cover the best Park Ticket options, where to eat and how to get around. For kids on the spectrum, the advice that is given to general visitors may not work quite so well.

Where to Stay. The standard advice, to most visitors, is to stay “on-site” with the parks that you wish to visit most or, at least, somewhere that is close by. There are reasons for this but they don’t always apply to our families.

Staying at a Disney on-site hotel or a Universal on-site hotel gives you certain advantages.

The most useful of those, for our families, is early admission to parks before the general public. Clearly the parks are less crowded during those times than at others and this is a considerable advantage. In the case of Disney, it is particular parks on particular days. In the case of Universal it’s the Wizarding World of Harry PotterTM every day. Please see our comments on When to Visit the Parks below.

Universal’s other on-site benefit is complimentary Unlimited Express passes for their parks. This is another benefit that may be particularly useful for our children.

For Disney, staying on-site also gives you complimentary access to the Disney Transportation System for getting from hotel to park, park to park or whatever combination. While useful to others, this may be a non-benefit to families with kids on the spectrum. Don’t get us wrong. Their transportation system is amazingly efficient but its task is to transport huge numbers of people from multiple places to multiple places. Your concern, at any given time, is to transport one family from one place to one other place. Please see the comments in our next posting on How to get around.

Additionally, staying at the on-site hotels allows you to purchase a meal plan. Universal’s is single plan. Disney offers multiple plans. In each case, bundling your meals into a plan is more cost effective than purchasing as you go along, IF you only eat within the parks or at the on-site hotels. You should, however, also look at our comments about Where to eat in our next posting.

The downside of on-site hotels is that they are more expensive than comparable hotels off-site. You need to weigh that additional cost against the benefits that they provide.  If you decide to stay off-site, why do you need to be at a hotel that is close to the parks you wish to visit ? The supposed benefit is that, often but not always, hotels close to Universal provide a complimentary shuttle to Universal and those close to Disney provide a shuttle to Disney. Shuttles may have a drawback for our kids. Please see When to visit the parks, below.

The last thought on where to stay is to give consideration to staying at a Vacation Home rather than at any of the hotels. One of the prime advantages here is how much quieter they can be than almost any hotel. This may be very important to you, especially when you consider it alongside When to visit the parks, below.

The other potential advantage with this type of accommodation is that they can be a considerably less expensive option. Not every vacation home will be suitable for kids with ASD but the good news here is that we are working with one management company and the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) in order to ensure that some are adapted in order to be suitable. We hope to be working with a second management company soon.

When to visit the parks.  For almost anybody, the parks are more enjoyable when they are less crowded. For our families, it is may be more a question of “doable or not”.

Somewhere out there, we found recommendations that spoke to specific days of the week being better for specific parks. And that advice was varied according to season ! Assuming that those recommendations were accurate, it’s still not the information that you need. Here are some general thoughts for our families.

To state the obvious, holidays are more crowded than other times. Also, weekends are, generally, more crowded than weekdays. Then we come to consideration of time of day. For many families with children on the spectrum, the best advice will be to get to the parks early and to leave sometime before the peak of the day. For some families that will be enough for the day. For some, it will be possible to return later after the peak has passed.

It will probably help you to get to the park shortly after opening time. We actually suggest that you plan to arrive approximately 15 minutes after opening time. That allows for those people that got there before opening, in order to be “first”, to have done so and be on their way. Of course, you need to factor in how long it will take you to get to the park.

Opening time will depend upon whether you are staying on-site and taking advantage of the early admission benefit or not. Figure your opening time accordingly.

It is worth having a planned time to leave the park and avoid the worst of the peak. You should, however, be ready to leave earlier than that if it is starting to look like your child is becoming overwhelmed.  Now here’s the downside to those shuttles, for off-site hotels, and the Disney Transportation System, if staying on-site with them. They run to a schedule.

That schedule may actually be a hindrance to you if you’re trying to get back to your hotel before a meltdown. The waiting plus the switching between different modes of transport (cart, ferry, bus etc) may cause more of a problem than the one you were trying to avoid. Take a look at our comments on How to get around, next time.

Being away from the parks in the middle of the day also helps in other ways. Consider this. While everybody else at your hotel is fighting the crowds at the park, this will be the time when the pool at your hotel is least crowded. The same thought applies to pretty much any of the facilities at your hotel. These advantages of being out of the parks in the middle of the day apply whether you are at an on-site or at an off-site hotel.


In our next posting we’ll cover:

Park Tickets – which choices may be better for us ?

Where to eat – including, but not limited to, special diet ?

How to get around ?

Theme Parks, Updates and Advice about Accessibility Policies.

Theme ParkSome people with absolutely no decency abused Disney’s system for disability access to their attractions. Disney tried to amend their policies in order to prevent this abuse (and the related bad publicity) but the result has been upset, outrage and confusion. Here, we’ll try to make sense of that confusion.

For the sake of space limitations, we will confine this to the 3 major operators in the Orlando area with an apology to the many, many, excellent smaller attractions that we just don’t have the space to cover them.


In order to understand the new policies, you first need to understand their FASTPASS® System. This offers a shorter, and at times much shorter, line than regular entrance lines to the attractions that have this system. You go to the distribution machine near the relevant attraction and get a ticket with a time “window” for you to return and join the shorter line. The lines are shorter because the allocation of return times is set with a view to capacity control. You must get 1 FASTPASS ® ticket for each person in your party and everybody needs a valid admission ticket to the park in order to get one.


You need to know a few other things about this. Firstly, it is still a line but it is distinctly separate from the regular line. (This is not a “next ride” deal.) That said these lines are a better bet for most, but not all, of our kids. For shows, the time is for a specific performance and gets first admission. Secondly, once you are holding a FASTPASS® ticket, you can’t obtain another one for another attraction until after you’ve used the first one or until the time printed on the ticket (if you subsequently choose not to use it). This will be important to remember ! Also very importantly, only some attractions offer FASTPASS®.

The new Disability Access Service (DAS) Card. You obtain these from Guest Services at the main entrance to each park. There is a registration process that involves having a picture taken. A DAS card obtained at one park is valid for the other parks. The card is valid for up to 14 days depending upon the period for which your park admission tickets are valid. Here are the important things to know with a DAS card.

If an attraction has FASTPASS®, you must use that. For all other attractions, you use your DAS card to get a handwritten ticket with your return time. This is really important. Because they are hand written and not, therefore, tracked, it is possible to be holding multiple return time tickets (and one FASTPASS® ticket) at the same time. Since there is no separate line, your return time will, in fact, get you pretty much to the front of the regular line !

Making sense of this for our children. Given the information above, it is possible and probably desirable, to plan out visiting several attractions in sequence. One member of your party can go ahead a little and obtain 1 FASTPASS® ticket and any number of other return time tickets for the whole party while the others engage in whatever activity (shopping, meal, snack, etc.) they want. Armed with all of these return time tickets, you can then take the whole family straight from attraction to attraction with either front-of-line, or much shorter line, access.

One other useful piece of assistance. Even if you research in advance to find out how suitable a particular ride may be for your child, there will be some that you would really like to see and experience it for yourself before you take your child on it. Disney offer Ride Swap to help with this. When you get to the front of the line for the ride, they will permit one person from your family to experience the ride while the others wait. (It’s a short wait. None of these rides last that long !) If you find that it is indeed OK for your child, the rest of the party get straight onto that ride. Technically, since it’s a “swap”, the person who tried it out now has to wait. That said there is absolutely no reason why you can’t ask the cast member (Disney’s fancy term for staff) if the whole family could do the ride together. Of course, if you’ve determined that, after all, the ride isn’t suitable for your child; you just leave and go onto the next attraction.


Their expedited access is via Express PassSM. There are some similarities with Disney which include using a separate, shorter line but also not having the availability to bypass the line entirely. Also similarly, they capacity control the expedited access. There are, however, some very significant differences.

One of the big differences is that there are only 2 rides that don’t have Express PassSM access. The next thing is that you don’t get a return time; you can join the shorter line when you want to do so.

The most crucial difference is that you purchase Express PassSM.  It comes in 2 varieties. Express PassSM is good for 1 time only for each ride but Unlimited Express is good for use again and again, even at the same attraction. Also important to know is that the price varies according to capacity. When they are selling fast, the price goes up ! If they are selling slowly, the price goes down (but never below a given point). It is also important to know that Unlimited Express is actually provided at no additional cost if staying at one of their three higher-end, on-site hotels (but not the new, less expensive one – Cabana Bay, which opens early 2014).

However you obtain Express PassSM, it is likely that the Unlimited will be the better choice, if your child likes repetitive activities. This pass would allow you to do: short line, ride, short line, ride – all day long on just one ride – if that makes them happy.

For any given ride, they offer “sit then swap” which works in the same way as the scheme at Disney.




Actually, SeaWorld is more than just SeaWorld ! Their policies also cover their other parks which include: Aquatica (water park), Busch Gardens (in this case, you need to go from Orlando to Tampa) and Discovery Cove. (More about Discovery Cove below.)

You need to enroll, first, in their Ride Accessibility Program (RAP) at Guest Services as you enter the park. Once you enrolled in RAP, you can then go to each attraction for Special Access which will get you a return time for that attraction. That operates in the same way as the Disney attractions with the handwritten tickets in that you may hold multiple return times simultaneously. Also you should know that on some smaller attractions, you may go to the entrance marked with disabled access signs and be able to get on within 1-2 ride cycles.

Discovery Cove isn’t, strictly speaking, a theme park. They label it an “all-inclusive, dolphin-swim, day resort”. Front of line access is irrelevant here. They capacity control the whole park ! You need to book in advance to get in. Once they’ve sold their capacity for the day, nobody else can get in. The day-package includes breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks. Part of the experience is a reserved slot for a 30-minute dolphin interaction.  You can add a dolphin-swim experience, if desired. If booking for Discovery Cove, you can get a package that includes unlimited entrance to the other attractions mentioned above.



The people that have caused such uproar didn’t need to cheat !

They could have purchased a VIP Experience at Disney and, come to that, at Universal. In both cases you do pay a lot of money (ranging from $ 315/hour to $ $380/hour, with a 6 or 8 hour minimum) but you get your own private escort who can take you through the FASTPASS® lane or the Express PassSM lane, according to which park, and can do so repeatedly and without having to book a time window. There are other components to this like private seating at the included lunch and limo transfers to/from/between parks. All in all, this is a great thing, for those who can afford it.