November 24, 2015

How to Get the Most Out of Your Disney Trip with an Autistic Child

Posted in AMT's Faves, Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , at 11:03 am by autismmommytherapist


I am a planner. There will never be a line in my obituary stating how often I “winged it.” It’s just who I am. And never did my Type A personality flourish more than when it came to planning for our latest Disney sojourn.

I will begin with sharing with all of you that I consider Disney a “working vacation,” and whether you’re considering a trip with disabled kids or not I strongly suggest having wine on hand at the end of the day.

Lots of wine.

In addition to the grape I’m also strongly recommending you have a plan, and I’d like to share my tips with all of you today (including times when Disney broke the rules for us, woohoo!) so you can have THE BEST DAMN TRIP TO DISNEY EVER.

Which thankfully, is what we had.

I went into this trip with (for me) fairly modest expectations for our eldest son with severe autism, as the last time we went he spent the entire trip grabbing me every five feet and uttering the syllables “aha,” which translated into “Damnit take me home woman.” Florida being a wee bit far from Jersey, we couldn’t accommodate his wish for three days, and his displeasure was made known. The poor kid was also under the weather a bit, and that coupled with being in an entirely new state (he only leaves Jersey to go to CHOP) and sleeping in an entirely new bed (which happens exactly never) he was a mess. So as we boarded the plane two weeks ago with a healthy child I kept every extremity crossed and hoped for the best.

This time, Momma got her reward.

He was delighted, and delightful, and I attribute much of this to his (thank God) innate desire to be happy, and to precision planning that rivals Martha Stewart.

And it all began with a phone call.

In the last few years Disney has changed their disability pass program at least two times that I know of, and added the additional perk of offering three free fast passes with every ticket, a wonderful option not available to us two years ago. The fast passes you can book sixty days in advance if you’re staying on a Disney property, thirty if you’re not ( you would need to have your tickets in advance and create an account on “” or speak to a live person at Disney to do so.) You can also walk up to kiosks in the park and add or change a fast pass selection, which I would only rely upon if the park was not crowded as the wait times may be long. There is also an app you can download onto your phone that tells you all the wait times of the rides (so fabulous!). I did find the fast pass lane to be longer than it was two years ago when not everybody had them, but even on the one day we were there that the park was at a 5 for capacity (it goes up to 10,) that option was doable for us.

The disability pass program is set up so that in order to gain access to the fast pass lanes on rides for which you are not using your fast pass, one person in your party must walk up to the desired ride, and get an attendant to put a ride return time on the pass which has been issued to the person with the disability (the person with the disability does not have to be present too.) At Magic Kingdom we acquired this pass at Guest Services in Town Hall, and all members of our party had to be initially present to be included. The time to return to the ride will automatically be assigned to every member of your party who is on the pass.

And then the fun begins.

Prior to actually heading to Florida I mapped out an idea in my head of what rides would need a fast pass or disability pass time, and I tried to match them up geographically so my husband (who was our designated runner, he was so cute) didn’t have to traipse all over the park all day. I had a plan, but decided to talk to a live person when we were thirty days out from our trip just to make sure I would be maximizing our passes to their fullest potential.
I spent an hour-and-a-half with a mom of an autistic son (bonus!) and discovered how many ways I’d been wrong.

My lovely contact was able to look at the projected capacity for each of our two days at Magic Kingdom (there’s an app for that too,) and as such was able to plan with me which rides really needed the fast passes (totally different from what I had thought),) which rides would be a good call for the disability passes, and which I’d probably be able to walk onto (which had not been an option the last time we were there due to the crowds.) She helped me coordinate so we weren’t running all over the park to get our disability ride times, and helped me build in lunch and bathroom breaks so that we weren’t stressed. I was also told that with the fast pass you have a one hour window to complete your ride, but with the disability pass you can go on that ride any time after your assigned time, there is no expiration. She also informed me that you can’t keep booking disability passes continually, that you have to complete one disability pass ride before you book the next.

With all of that information, on our first day in the park we were able to eat a leisurely lunch, take potty breaks, actually enjoy the park, and go on twelve rides in seven hours without stressing out.

Yes, I’m trotting this out now- it was magical.

We had a few nice perks happen to us while we were there as well. The first day we acquired the disability pass in Town Hall (and this only works on the first day) the lovely Disney rep actually booked our first disability pass ride for us although she technically wasn’t supposed to, which meant my husband didn’t have to hoof it to Fantasyland when we were planning on exploring Tomorrowland first. Our last day there we actually added three more people to the pass even though the capacity is supposed to be six (we had to physically add them to the disability pass when they arrived.) The people at Guest Services could not have been more accommodating, and our wait time each time we went there was minimal.

In other words, they broke the rules a bit for us, and it really, really helped.

Here are a few other tips that helped make our trip great, particularly for a child with severe autism. My youngest son has a gluten allergy, so we researched which restaurants had gluten-free options and hamburgers (which he can eat without the bun) in all five sections of the park so we would have options no matter where we ended up. We also ate at eleven each day (I know that’s early, but Justin had me up at 4:00 AM each day ready to go (woohoo!) so frankly I was starving by then.

I can miss a few hours of sleep, but not a meal too.

Since we were not staying on a Disney property we avoided going to Magic Kingdom on the “magic hours days” (when Disney opens the park either earlier or later or both for guests staying on property) and just made it to the gates about half an hour before each day’s scheduled opening. We also looked at the traditional crowd capacity for each week in November (a great month to go,) and picked days that were generally less crowded (Veteran’s day was the exception, but even that day wasn’t too bad.) We had been contemplating going to Hollywood Studios so Zach could try to make it into the Jedi program, but checked it out ahead of time to make sure it was still operating and found out it wasn’t, which changed our entire plan.

Thank God I checked. Nobody tells Zach he can’t be a Jedi.

And finally, if you’re traveling with a kid or kids with autism or any other disability, I can’t recommend enough speaking to a live Disney representative to have them help you plan your trip. It made our experience so much better, and saved me the stress of having to ask myself every five minutes where we were going next and where was the wine.

Just kidding on that last part. Sort of.

If you’re planning a trip to Magic Kingdom in the near future I hope these hints help, and I hope you have a wonderful time. We worked hard to plan for this vacation (including taking Justin on a flight simulation years ago before our first trip,) and it really worked out.

We laughed, we made indelible memories for our family, and we didn’t lose either of the kids. It was simply fabulous, and I’ll throw this out there one last time.

It was magic.

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November 19, 2015

Disney Magic

Posted in Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , at 3:22 pm by autismmommytherapist


If I could only say one thing about our Disney trip (God forbid!) it would be this: autism anxiety 0, massive amounts of fun, 1 (I should really say a gazillion, but I’m trying to remain traditional here.)

Last week the McCafferty tribe, along with our host, Grandma, and my lovely sister-in-law, descended upon Orlando for the second time in full force. Our previous trip two years ago had met with mixed success. Zach was so enthralled he cried when we came home and said he wanted to go back, but Justin, our severely autistic son, who was slightly under-the-weather, was mostly miserable. We spent most of the trip watching him clutch one of us every ten feet or so and say “aha,” his word approximation for “home,” and the sparkle that usually resides in his eyes was absent. I chose to chalk up most of his discontent with his illness, and some with the anxiety that a break in routine brings to him. I knew the true test would be our next trip, and I’d have to wait to find out if my guess was correct (waiting not being my forte, I was annoyed.) It turned out, for once, I was right.

Justin was absolutely amazing.

He weathered both plane rides like a champ, rocking back and forth to comfort himself (we always plan to have a family member sit behind him,) frequently smiling and looking out the window with glee. A few times on the way back to Philadelphia he said his sounds for “home,” and when I reassured him that’s where we were going his face was incandescent.

My boy gets it.

There were, of course, difficult parts of the trip. Our first night Justin woke up at 3:00 AM with stomach issues and he couldn’t get back to sleep, so we were a wee bit tired for Legoland (but frankly it was so damn hot that one day we didn’t much notice.) He continued to wake up by 4:00 each morning we were there, but since I was crashing from complete exhaustion by 9:30 each night (McCafferty mama really lives it up on vacation) his early awakenings weren’t much of an issue from then on. Our first morning he kept handing me his shoes and cried for a while, but once we reassured him he was going to have fun he got over it, and we had a fabulous day.

And this time he adored the Magic Kingdom. The smiles, the giggles, the look on his face in “It’s a Small World” are emblazoned in my memory forever.

Perhaps some of you are thinking that it must be nice to be able to take a severely autistic kid on a vacation when you are dealing with insomnia, eating issues, aggression, or all of the above and more. I’ll be happy to share that we’ve been there too, with some of the issues lasting many years. Believe me things are often still challenging chez McCafferty, but we’ve weathered many storms over the last twelve years, and through therapy, luck, and mostly Justin’s own maturation process and love, we’ve come to a much better place.

A place where I felt comfortable taking my boy on two plane rides and having him sleep somewhere not his own bed.

I can’t tell you what it means to me to have a family vacation where both of my kids actually loved their stay. I adored seeing Zach’s excitement over every ride, but in truth, I was even happier to give this experience to Justin. Planner that I am, I’m always thinking ahead to the day where Justin will have to take one giant step out of his comfort zone and live without us. Frankly, the fact that he could handle five days in another state with new experiences and at least somewhat sleep there is thrilling to me. Over the years to come I’m going to have to continually stretch my boy, and his reaction to this giant departure from his daily routine is greatly encouraging.

It gives me hope.

In my next and final post about Disney (I swear!) I’m going to write about the new disability pass system that Disney is now employing. I’ll tell you how to get the most out of piggybacking the pass with your three complimentary fast passes (this will include a description of how much I enjoyed watching my husband run to get the disability pass times for us.) I’ll share with you how my type A personality flourished, and perhaps you can break our record (twelve rides in seven hours WITH a lunch break) and not kill yourselves doing it.

I’ll be back. And I want to say a special thank you to those of you who follow me on Facebook. Your support and joy at Justin’s own joy were priceless.

And as I mentioned in my last post, this time, I kept some of that magic for myself.

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April 4, 2012

“Traveling with your Autistic Child”

Posted in Fun Stuff, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:21 am by autismmommytherapist

It’s been almost six years since the McCafferty clan took a family vacation together. This is in part due to the fact that more than half a decade ago we relocated from Washington, DC back to the Jersey shore, which when not obnoxiously crowded, is a vacation in and of itself. We also eschewed travel because within months of taking up residence in the Garden State, I found myself quite unexpectedly pregnant

For obvious reasons, the prospect of a trip with a young son with moderate autism, coupled with an infant, was terribly unappealing to both me and my spouse. Finally, just as we were beginning to consider leaving the house again our youngest son regressed, losing almost all of his speech and his spark in a matter of weeks.

Let’s just say at that time, travel wasn’t at the top of our priorities.

It’s been a few years now since those wretchedly grim days, and although Justin has chosen to enter a decidedly challenging phase, I’m beginning to feel I must heed the call of Disney. Zach will be almost six this fall, Justin is pushing nine, and I’m beginning to think we have a window in which to attempt this, and it’s starting to slowly close. Given that I’m pretty tired these days, I may not be pushing it open in the near future. It’s time to bite the bullet and give it a go.

So happy they still serve wine on planes.

We’re beginning to gather our resources for the trip, showing Justin ancient VCR tapes from his grown cousins that describe the myriad pleasures of the resort, and most importantly, have a “run-through” planned at a Philadelphia airport (I will write more after it takes place this month). Quite honestly I will discuss the possibility of sedatives for the plane ride (no, sadly, not for me), as there is not a chance in hell we’re all driving to and from Florida together.  If we can pull this off, I intend to fly there and back with the same amount of kids with which I started.

I know. Those extravagant dreams again.

There is one resource that will be an integral component of our trip, what I like to call my “travel-Bible”, a gem-packed list of travel tips for travel with a child on the autism spectrum. It’s called “Traveling with your Autistic Child” by Babette Zschiegner, and I will have this tome practically adhered to my body throughout our entire stay. Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, the author happens to be my friend, is in fact one of the actresses in my play, “Raising Autism”. It’s still a great book, and I anticipate it will be saving my sanity on at least several occasions as we attempt this adventure.

That, and of course, that glorious wine.

There are several wonderful features about her writing. First of all, she’s the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and she’s traveled extensively with both of her sons, so none of her ideas are mere conjecture. Second, she explains in great detail how she and her husband conquered each stumbling block to family fun along the way, generally suggesting more than one solution to each problem that arose. Last, she condenses all her fabulous tips into an easy-to-find guide at the end of the chapter, for those times (and in this household, there are many) where we need a condensed answer, and fast.

Quick is key around here.

The author has broken down her tips into eight easy-to-read chapters, and covers such topics as where to go, what to bring (I will be memorizing this list), and special diets. She even devotes a number of pages to handling a child who wanders, which is a particular concern to many families with children on the  spectrum. My personal favorites however, and the two that convinced me that we should give this travel gig a go, are the two centering on dealing with challenging moments, and sleep.

The latter segment being my personal fave.

In her chapter about handling challenging moments, she reminded me to always have a Plan B in place (sometimes C and D are helpful too), and to remember that there will frequently be difficult moments in life, moments which (hopefully) will eventually end. Perhaps my favorite reminder for “happy travel” came at the conclusion, where the author reminds us all that we can’t control what others think about our child’s behavior, and most importantly (and happily), we will probably never see those people again.

I employed that one a lot in Justin’s early days, and it’s one maxim that continues to ring completely true.

I don’t want to give too much away (no spoiler alerts here), but I recall as I read her work the first time I kept wondering if she’d answer all of my questions, and eventually, she did. Of course there are some strategies that won’t work for either of my children, as all of our offspring are so different. The vast majority will be incredibly helpful however, with some adaptations to be expected.

Trust me, on this trip, “Traveling with your Autistic Child” will remain in my carry-on.

If you’re considering travel with one or more children on the spectrum, I highly recommend Babette Zschiegner’s book. To purchase or read more about it, please see the link below:

Best of luck to you, and happy travels!

November 18, 2011

Gratitude Attitude

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 10:16 am by autismmommytherapist

This week’s Gratitude Attitude goes out to my mom and Aunt Kate, for helping make “Sleepover Part Three” a resounding success.  Disney, here we come!