I have wanted to write this blog post since we returned from Walt Disney World but it has been difficult thinking about all the what ifs. My son is just turning 12 years-old and is Autistic. He is at the higher end of the spectrum but has severe social anxieties, social impairments and he doesn’t understand other people, they are almost like a museum exhibit to him. It’s almost like he feels people are interesting to study but they have no connection to him in everyday life. We have known he was autistic since he was 4. In fact, we went to Walt Disney World one week after his diagnosis. Here is a blog post I wrote several years ago reflecting on that time: The Day My Son’s Life Came into Focus.
He has been to Walt Disney World 10 times. He loves all things Disney. He can walk you through the parks and tell you all the details without needing to be there. He will tell you what needs to be updated and/or changed in his opinion and what they should replace it with. He loves Walt Disney World and feels very comfortable there.
We are currently working on making him a bit more independent. We are very aware that we will not always be around and that he will eventually need to have the skills most 12 year-olds already have to survive in the world without us. One such thing we are working on is walking from the car into our local, very small grocery (convenient type) store, picking up one item (such as gum or milk), paying for it and returning to the car. I went through the process with him several times over several weeks before he did it on his own. He has successfully done it once now. My older daughter did this when she was 9 or 10. He is just starting to be able to do something like this.
The other problem he has is that he is a big 6th grader. He is 5’7″ tall and being so big people expect more from him than he is easily able to do. If he was smaller I think more people would be forgiving of his deficits. But, you see a large person and think they should be able to do this not realizing there is a problem that you cannot see.
When we were on our recent trip to Walt Disney World he and his older sister wanted to go on the single rider line of Rock’n Roller Coaster. We agreed that they could go and that we would be in the little area next door to the ride at the tables having a snack. We showed them where we were going to be and when they were done they were to come back to the table and let us know what they wanted to do next or my daughter could text us that they were going on again.
Part way through the single rider line my son had to go to the bathroom. He knew that the bathroom was right across from the ride and his sister asked him, “Are you sure you know where you are going?” He assured her he knew and told her exactly where he was going. She told him get back in line when you come back and I will wait for you at the end of the ride until you come off. She texted us that he had to get out of line but that he was just going to the bathroom and would get back in line and she would wait for him at the end of the ride. She thought there were only about 20 people behind her but she would see him and wait for him at the end.
Well, this is where it starts to go all wrong. My son was upset that he had to get out of line but knew he really needed to. So, he went to the bathroom but instead of going back and getting in line he tried to find us. He went to the wrong section of tables and we never saw him even though he was probably 25 feet from us.
He started to panic, thinking we had left him alone in the parks. He started to cry and started wandering around the tables and over to Beauty and the Beast wondering if we went in there. Two cast members saw him at different times and tried to talk to him. He told them he was fine but did not tell them he was lost because they were strangers and he was afraid to tell anyone. He finally made it back to us about 30 minutes after getting out of line.
He was crying hysterically and scared. We got him calmed down and talked about cast members and what to do if we are ever separated again. We explained that cast members are like police officers or fire men. You can tell them you are lost and it’s okay. If there is ever a reason you feel unsafe or need help look for a cast member that looks nice to you and ask for help. He knows our cell phone numbers by heart and our full names so that they can call us. It never occurred to us that he wouldn’t ask for help from a cast member at Disney World.
We also explained that we would never leave him in the parks. Ever. If we say we are going to be somewhere we will be there waiting for him.
We also pointed out to him that he did the right thing by not leaving the area. We told him if he is ever lost stop and don’t continue to wander. Stay in the area you are and look for a cast member if you are in Disney World. If he is out of the park we told him to stop and find a safe area to wait for us to find him. He is not to wander or walk if he is lost. That way someone can find him easier if we are all looking for him. Otherwise he may be walking away from us not toward us.
Once he was calmed down we made him go and get on the ride with his sister and stand in the stand-by line. Before he left us we had him look carefully at all the landmarks around us so he would remember which table to return to. We knew if he did not go then and get back on the ride he would never want to leave us and do it by himself again.
He did it!
It was a tough lesson for all of us. Our fears of what could have happened and his fears of abandonment were all heightened but we all worked through them with a very positive outcome in the end. He rode the ride by himself and found us at the table when he was done. Right where he left us.
Doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment but for this kid it is just the beginning of learning independence with a HUGE step forward.
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Thank you for sharing the story. Sometimes we (despite any age) panic making a situation more frantic than it needs to be. Why I’m commenting is because you are right with considering the cast members important safe people to turn to. Also, very smart to stay still and not walk around.
Disney is mesmerizing with the crowds, there is constant movement. I’m 43 and still get anxious when I get separated from my group. I’m taking your mothering advice and will be calmer now. Disney has eyes everywhere, no need to panic. Glad the story had a good ending!
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Thanks for sharing this.. My heart dropped when you wrote about him crying and walking around. It had to be so scary to him. I’m so glad he knew to stay in the area and you found him. I wanted to cry for him reading this. This definitely made me think how important it is that we let kids know what to do if they are ever lost. Especially on vacation, in a big theme park. I had a scare at Disney two years ago. We ate at Beauty and the Beast restaurant for my daughters 5th bday, well she went with my husband and dad while I paid the bill. She got seperated somehow from them, and we couldn’t find her. I was screaming like a mad woman when I cam out and realized she was missing. It turned out she went back in to our table and when we weren’t there, she told the waiter we had. Thank God.. But, my heart stop beating for awhile there. I totally understand how your son and you both felt that day.
Though we had talked about getting lost before it was always in the context of being in town or warnings such as stay close so you don’t get lost.
It was scary reliving the what ifs after because in the moment we had that everything is okay Mommy moments of assuring him he did okay and next time if it ever happens again here’s what to do. We had our scary moment after he left the table again talking it through with what we need to teach him.