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How to Enjoy Disney World When Your Child Has Autism

This year my husband insisted on a trip to Disney World. I resisted because our nine-year-old, James, has Autism Spectrum Disorder. James can normally blend in with his non-autistic classmates, but this was Disney: three solid days of overstimulation, temptation, distraction, and surprises.

But James is only one member of our four-person family. We also have a seven-year-old princess… I mean daughter.

I visited an easy-to-find section of Disney’s website: Services for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities, “including those on the Autism Spectrum.” There I found a chart with sensory details on each ride: smells, bumps, sounds, flashing lights, periods of darkness. There were videos to help kids prepare, and lists of what to bring, such as headphones, earplugs, or a favorite toy. There were maps to special “break areas,” where people could go if they were overstimulated.

All the basics that most people with autism need.

The tricky part is, James is like most people with autism, in that he’s not like most people with autism. Autism features a wide range of presentations, from severely developmentally delayed people who can’t speak, to college-educated professionals. So each person’s needs are highly specific.

James didn’t need a sensory guide. When it comes to roller coasters, the louder, the flashier, the bumpier, the better. But crowds? Unfamiliar foods? Unexpected closures? Far-away restrooms? Any of these, and especially these in combination, could ruin the trip.

Exhaustive preparation is always my best defense. Disney offers Fast Passes for free to all visitors, not just those with disabilities. They were all we needed (beyond advance dinner reservations and a restriction on overdoing it) for our first two days in the Magic Kingdom. A Fast Pass gives you a generous time window during which to report for a ride, and admits you to a fast-moving line once you show up.

On the first day of our visit, we had a hint of what was to come. We hit Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, our second planned ride, about 45 minutes ahead of our Fast Pass arrival time. I decided we’d wait in the regular line, which looked short to me.

Well, actually James decided. I wanted to use our Disability Access Pass, which we’d obtained within our first 15 minutes at the Magic Kingdom. It would have functioned like a Fast Pass, sparing us some time in line but not swooping us to the front.

“I understand,” the young woman at the desk had murmured before the second half of “High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder” was out of my mouth. Then she asked to take James’ picture.

“Mom,” James whined, looking around us. When I’d first mentioned the pass to him, he’d put his foot down. “Disability Pass? No. I don’t need special treatment.”

Cool kid, right?

Before I was James’ mother I was a child psychologist specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders. I follow my own advice, even though being the mom is nothing like being the psychologist. Instead of supporting James in his attempt to tough it out, I made him get the Disability Access Pass, which afterward he referred to as the Autism Pass.

Any little bit could help.

Back to Big Thunder Mountain. Disney lines snake around, so that you can’t tell you’re near the front until just before you hop on the ride. At precisely the 30-minute mark, James abruptly stepped within a millimeter of the young woman in front of him and growled, “I hate this person. I’m going to push her.”

He didn’t push her. He never planned to. This was just his way of saying he’d had enough waiting. Unfortunately, I could tell by the young woman’s face that he didn’t look at all autistic to her.

He looked like a brat.

Later, I asked James what he would rather be: a brat, or a person with autism?

“I just hated that girl. She was in my way.”

I explained and explained, but in the end he agreed only to this: 30 minutes in line was his limit. For any wait beyond that, we would use the Autism Pass.

Most people are beginning to understand that Autism Spectrum Disorder means different things for different people. What’s less commonly understood is that it means different things for the same person at different times.

Hopping out of the front car of Space Mountain, high-fiving his dad and exclaiming, “That was awesome!” James looks like a typical nine year old. But tack on a few discomforts and uncertainties, and suddenly he’s scratching gashes into his own forearms and yelling, “Put me up for adoption!”

I’d do anything to prevent one of these rare outbursts. As she arranged our Disability Access Pass, the young woman had asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

I said no, because I didn’t know where to start. At the end of our trip, I came up with a wish list:

  • A private taxi from our hotel room’s door to the front of the park.
  • The cell phone number of the taxi driver so we could escape at a moment’s notice.
  • Immediate service at any restaurant offering plain hamburgers, hot dogs, or cheese pizza.
  • Immediate restroom access within 100 feet of any ride.
  • For all gift shops to hide their Star Wars action figures, until such time as we were ready to make a purchase.
  • A magic pod that would transport us swiftly through a crowd of any size, so that we wouldn’t have to dodge people as we walked.

Recall that James doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, and it’s an impossible situation. I wanted that magic pod, and I wanted it to be invisible, too.

Like Disney proved in their guide, I know what’s likely to trigger my child with autism. I zero in on these triggers and try to snuff them out completely in the name of family fun.

But spontaneity is also part of the fun. By the third day, even as James’ stress level increased, we both appreciated the pop-up parade, the roaming Tigger, and the Mickey-shaped waffle. We would have missed all of that if I’d been “helped” to everything on my list.

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For the first couple years of a child's life, their feet grow so rapidly that they typically need a new shoe size every two to three months (so, no, you're not imagining how many shoes you've been buying lately!).

Fortunately, things tend to slow down as they start walking and hit school age. Even so, it's important to make sure they're wearing the right size for maximum comfort and healthy development.

That's why we teamed up with the experts at Rack Room Shoes for tips on helping the whole family get back to school on the right foot.

1. Get professionally fitted at least once a year.

We love online shopping as much as anyone, but for the health of your child's feet, it's worth it to make at least an annual trip to a store to get them properly sized on a Brannock Device (yep, those old-school sizers you remember as a kid are still the most reliable indicators of foot length and width!). Back to school is a great time to plan a visit to a store with trained associates who can help ensure your little one is getting the right fit.

2. Remember not all feet (or shoes) are created equally.

Most babies have naturally pudgier feet that thin out as they get older, and many kids need a wider or narrower shoe than their peers. Visiting a store and speaking with a trained associate can help you gauge which shoe brand will best suit your child. Once you have that benchmark, shopping online will be easier.

3. Get good closure.

Shoe closure, that is. Nowadays, there's a variety of ways to fasten kids shoes, from slip-ons to velcro to elastic laces. Provide your child with a few options to find the closure that works best for you both.

4. Watch for tell-tale signs your child has outgrown their shoes.

Children will often be the last ones to tell you their favorite shoes are uncomfortable. If your child is tripping or walking funny, it may be time to size up.

5. Try the push-down toe method.

Think your kid has outgrown their kicks? Push down on the toe of their shoe with your thumb to see how much wiggle room they have. The ideal size is to have about half a thumb's width between the tip of the toe and the end of the shoe. (That space equates to about half a size.)

6. Pick a style they'll want to put on. (Here are some of our favorites!)

Most moms know the struggle of getting kids out the door in the morning—the right pair of shoes can help cut down on the (literal) foot-dragging. Opt for a fun style (consider shopping for their favorite color or a light-up design) that they'll be begging to wear every day. (But feel free to buy a second pair that's more your style too!)

You'll love that they're classic converse. They'll love the peek of pink.

Converse Girls Maddie, $44


7. Don't forget the sneakers.

Whether they're running through the recess or racing in P.E., school-age children need a pair of well-fitting, durable sneakers. Be sure to get them professionally fitted to ensure nothing slows them down on the playground.

8. Understand the size breakdowns.

Expert retailers like Rack Room Shoes break up sizing by Baby, Toddler, Little Kid, and Big Kid to make it easier to find the right section for your child. For boys, there's no size break between kids shoes and men's shoes. Girls, though, can cross over into women's shoes from size 4 (in girls) on—a girl's size 4 is a women's size 5.5 or 6.

Looking for more advice? Step into a Rack Room Shoes store near you or shop online. With a "Buy One, Get One 50% off" policy, you can make sure the whole family will put their best foot forward this back-to-school season. (We had to!)

In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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I can vividly remember the last time I remember feeling truly rested. I was on vacation with my family, and my dad and I had started a tradition of going to sleep at 10 p.m., then waking up at 10 a.m. to go for a run. After five days of twelve hours of sleep a night, I remember actually pausing and thinking, "I am truly not at all tired right now!"

That was probably 15 years ago.

Of course, being tired pre-kids and being tired post-kids are two entirely different beasts. Pre-kids, tiredness was almost a badge of pride. It meant you had stayed up late dancing with friends or at a concert with your boyfriend. It meant you had woken up early to hit a spin class before gliding into work, hair still damp from your shower, for a morning meeting. Being tired meant you were generally killing it at life—and I was still young enough that, with a little concealer, I could look like it.

Tired post-kids is a whole other animal.

Tired post-kids means you probably still went to bed at a reasonable hour, but you're still exhausted. Maybe you even slept in past sunrise... but you're still exhausted. You may not have worked out in weeks... but you're still exhausted. And staying out late dancing with your girlfriends? (I mean... is that real life? Was it ever?) Nope, didn't do that. But—you guessed it!—you're still exhausted.

Sometimes I look at my husband and say, "I think if I could sleep for about five days, then I would feel rested again."

But considering the average new mom loses almost two months of sleep in her child's first year of life, even that is probably a low estimate of what I really need.

Because being a mom is exhausting.

It's exhausting always putting someone else's needs above your own. I often find myself actually giving my daughter the food off my plate (because, when you're two, mom's meal must be better even if you're eating the exact same thing).

Or I'll sacrifice sneaking my own nap to lie uncomfortably with her on the couch because it means she sleeps an extra 30 minutes.

Or I'll carry her up and down flights of stairs she is perfectly capable of scaling on her own because, well, she's tired or it's just quicker than nagging her to hurry up all the time.

I often end the day bone-tired, shocked at the physical exertion of just keeping this little person alive.

It's exhausting remembering all the things. The mental load of motherhood is so real, and sometimes I'm not sure it won't crush me.

I schedule and remember the doctor appointments, keep the fridge stocked and plan the meals, notice when my husband is low on white shirts and wash and fold the laundry, add the playdates and the date nights to the calendar, and add any assortment of to-dos to my day because, well, I'm the parent at home, so I must have time, right?

And when I drop one of the thousand balls I'm juggling, I writhe under the guilt of failing at my responsibility.

It's exhausting not getting enough sleep. The sleep gap doesn't end after baby's first year.

Studies have shown that parents lose as much as six months of sleep in their child's first two years of life. That sounds unbelievable at first...but I completely believe it.

Because sometimes I stay up later than I should just to get a few minutes of "me" time. Because sometimes my sleep-trained daughter still wakes up in the middle of the night with a nightmare or because she's sick or for no real reason at all and needs me to soothe her back to sleep.

Because sometimes I'm so busy trying to keep it all together mentally that I don't know how to turn my own brain off to get to sleep. And because sometimes (almost always) my daughter wakes up earlier than I would like her to and the day starts over before I'm ready.

It's exhausting maintaining any other relationship while being a mom. I try not to neglect my marriage. I try not to neglect my friendships. I try to make time for friendly interaction with my coworkers. I try to be there for my congregation. I try to keep all these connections alive and nurtured, but the fact is that some days my nurture is completely used up.

It's exhausting doing all of the above while being pregnant. Okay, this one might not resonate for every mom, but we all know being pregnant is hard. Being pregnant with a toddler? I'm shocked it's not yet an Olympic event. (I'm not sure if we'd all get gold medals or just all fall asleep at the starting gun.)

Most days, I'm so tired and busy I honestly forget that I am pregnant, only to be reminded at the end of the day when I finally collapse on the couch and the little one in my uterus wakes up to remind me. My body is doing amazing things, sure—and I have the exhaustion to show for it.

Of course, I know that this is just an exhausting season of life. One day, one not-so-far-off day, my children will be a bit more grown and be able to get their own breakfast in the morning. One day, they'll actually want to sleep in, and I'll be the one opening their curtains in the morning to start the day (maybe before they're really ready).

One day, they'll always walk up and down the stairs themselves and will stop stealing my food and I'll be able to nap without making sure they are asleep or with a sitter. One day, they won't need me to remember all the things.

And the really wild part? Just thinking about that day makes me miss these days, just a bit.

So, yes, I'm tired. I'm always tired. But I'm grateful too. Grateful I get to have these days. Grateful I get to have this life.

But also really grateful for those days I get to nap, too.

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Who knew Amazon had so many dreamy nursery must-haves? Maybe you have a friend or family member about to have a baby or you're preparing for your new bundle of joy—either way, you can save tons on grabbing some essentials on Prime Day.

We've rounded up our favorite nursery items from basics, like cribs and changing tables, to the essentials you never knew you needed (hint: lots of storage!).

1. 6-drawer dresser

This gorgeous dresser has plenty of space for baby's clothing and accessories—and will transition seamlessly to a big kid room one day. Even better? The top is large enough to be used as a changing table. The shade of white is great for any gender, too!

Dresser, Amazon, $239.99 ($329.99)


Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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