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Disneyland As Sensory Therapy

Social Skills Summer
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Disneyland Sensory Plan

It’s always a special treat when we learn a guilty pleasure is good for us. Like when you read a new study that three glasses of wine at night is healthy, or having a piece of dark chocolate a day boosts brain cells.  It’s like a private party of justification and validation in one. Woot woot! I can drink the whole bottle and be uber-healthy, and that entire load of Halloween candy is going into my belly.

That is exactly how I felt when I was told by my son’s OT that our frequent trips to Disneyland were a version of sensory therapy.  Mickey Mouse says what?!?!  It was like I had won the sensory lottery. 

See my son is an avoider.  As a baby, he NEVER slept until he’d pass out, and during this time I had to hold him tightly or he’d flail like he was falling off a cliff.  We tried to go out to dinner, but that margarita blender at the Mexican restaurant sent him into a screaming tizzy.  And so we turned our apartment into a dark cave, with blackout curtains to block the sun, and I’d watch him line up his toys in the safety of his controlled environment.
But then, my son’s father suggest I take him to Disneyland.  I thought he was nuts.  Our son couldn’t even handle a park, and the McDonald’s playground was torture for him. Regardless of my worry that he’d be miserable all day, we packed up a stroller and drove 45 minutes to the happiest place on earth.  And shockingly, it was the absolute, not-gonna-lie, dreamiest, magical-ist (is that a word?) place that we had taken my son. Though my tactile sensitive toddler refused to wear clothes, we tucked a blanket around him and no one seemed to notice (it was a Mickey Mouse blanket, so totally okay).  He stayed in the comfort of his stroller, observing the spectacles before him and he LOVED it.
We did what any parents in this situation would do by making a Disneyland sensory plan and purchasing annual passes. I started taking him to Disneyland and California Adventure a few times a week.  It became my job.  Even if we just went for an hour in the morning, it was where he was happy.
As the weeks progressed, he would wear clothes to enter the park.  And then he would wear shoes. And then he slowly ventured out of the safety of his stroller so that he could get a closer look at the Bug’s Life Show.  We watched that show every day, sometimes multiple times.  And he started singing along!  We knew all the words, but my son didn’t talk, so this was HUGE.  Yes, it was echolalia, but it was something and we were thrilled.  I still have our VHS tape as we made a copy for him to watch at home (but I no longer have a VCR).
As the year went on, my son would never go near a character, or dare to ride a ride, or try a new food, but he made progress in his own right and he tolerated the constant noise, the crowds, and even the parades.  This was before we knew about noise reduction headphones, so my son would hold his hands over his ears to watch the parade in absolute joy and awe.
It wasn’t until another year had passed and more and more progress with my son that we learned about sensory processing disorder.  Once we found our pediatric OT, we were lucky to begin an intensive program, and even luckier to learn that our frequent Disneyland trips received an A plus.  An E ticket for sure (those of you who are old enough will get that reference)!   
So my advice to fellow Sensory Mamas is to think outside the box. What does your child love?What do they respond to?  Once you find that, run with it and add in all the sensory integration you can. Always consult with your child’s OT, but you’d be surprised at how welcomed your extra efforts are with them.  You can’t force a child to overcome their sensory processing issues, but you can gently guide them with the help of your OT and your Mama instincts.
Have a magical day,
PS:  As a teenager, my son will now ride the roller coasters!  It took 11 years and he moved at his own pace, but he’s doing great and Disneyland is still an active part of our sensory therapy.
PSS:  Love all things Disney?  Since we do frequent the park so much, I’ll be writing some specific sensory tips in the upcoming weeks.  A Disneyland Sensory Plan!  Stay tuned fellow Mouseketeers.