The It's a Small World ride sign at Disneyland

Why I Love It's a Small World as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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If you’re like me, every few years growing up, you’d spend a good amount of time at a Disney theme park with your family, friends, sweetheart or siblings. Maybe you enjoyed getting wet on Splash Mountain, singing “Yo-ho-ho a pirate’s life for me” on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, watching singing parrots in the Enchanted Tiki Room or getting your picture taken with Mickey and Minnie. And maybe you either dragged someone (or got dragged by someone else) to be subjected to 15 minutes of riding in a slow-moving boat and watching a bunch of dolls in an abstract, colorful atmosphere singing the exact same song over and over again.

Yup, you guessed it. It’s a Small World.

Today, if you asked anybody over the age of 9 about that ride, a lot of them might admit to a fairly passionate hatred toward the classic Disney gem. Why do so many people dislike It’s a Small World? The most common reason I’ve found is the horribly catchy song that’s endlessly repeated and stays stuck in your head when the ride is over. Others say it’s the animatronic dolls. Some would even argue that, compared to other Disney rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, its architecture and feel is not nearly authentic enough.

The reasons why some people dislike this ride can go on and on. But the question I really want to answer is: why do I like It’s a Small World when many others don’t?

You probably wouldn’t expect a nearly 21-year old male to say he loves It’s a Small World, a ride that mainly appeals to young kids and their parents. And you probably wouldn’t expect to hear that I actually enjoy the song playing during the ride. For one, I understand the context behind the ride: Countries around the world are presented with representations of their people and cultures, and combined with the lyrics, the ride delivers a powerful message that all people and nations are equal. Everyone experiences love, hatred, disappointment, hopes, dreams and desires, but our differences can make us oblivious to that. I also like the ride because of the artistry and detail throughout. Sure, it doesn’t have Pirates’ ability to transport you to another time and place, or the Mansion’s highly detailed technicality through special effects, but it still has the vibrant, colorful artistry of Mary Blair that inspires the young and the young at heart.

But I think the most significant reason I never grew to despise this ride is because it’s one of those rides that accommodates my sensory issues. A trip to a theme park can be both a thrill and a nightmare for someone like me on the autism spectrum — lots of people everywhere, loud noises all around, waiting in long lines only so the ride can break down… It can really be tough for anyone sensitive to sound, touch or atmosphere. Growing up, I would avoid several rides, such as The Matterhorn Bobsleds, Space Mountain, Tower of Terror and even The Haunted Mansion because there were many fast, sudden changes or unsettling moments that would overwhelm my senses. I would always go on other rides, such as The Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, where I always knew what was about to happen. As for It’s a Small World, it not only felt like a safe haven for me, but the many creative scenes within the ride, along with all of the beautiful art and designs, inspired me and made me feel like I was 3 years old again.

Could this be called a guilty pleasure of mine? Am I really too old for this ride? I actually doubt this very much. I only consider something a guilty pleasure if it’s of poor quality and not deserving of any recognition as something positive. To me, It’s a Small World is a beautiful declaration by Disney that all people are equal, and if we were to open our eyes a bit more, the world would be a happier place. The same goes for anyone on the autism spectrum. Why can’t people open their eyes a bit and see that those with sensory issues or verbal communication difficulties are really not different from them?

“There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware, it’s a small world after all.”

Follow this journey on Growing Up Autistic.

Image source: Jonnyboyca [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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How The Turks Head Jugglers Helped Me as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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Growing up as someone on the autism spectrum, I never really fit in anywhere. Rather than joining others in team sports or hanging out at the mall, I’d be out looking for coins with my metal detector or studying sign language. You could definitely say I had some unique interests.

One day, my mom found a catalog for the night school program in my area. It listed some more common classes such as cooking or writing. But she noticed a specific class titled “Juggling? Of Course You Can!” I thought it was so different, so of course I had to try it!

I enjoyed the class immensely. I wasn’t great at juggling, but I really liked the positive attitude of the instructor, Randy. And when he told me that there was a free, local juggling group called The Turks Head Jugglers, I was thrilled!

I showed up to the group’s gym with my own juggling props: stacking cups (not the little ones, but sport-stacking ones). For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. Instead of the usual strange looks, I saw smiles. People were interested in what I was doing…and I was interested in the many different props that they were using. From juggling clubs to the diabolo (a kind of yo-yo), to tossing rings and more, there was just so much to try! And the best part was the fact that I could try them all.

Everyone was welcome to ask to try a new prop. Everyone was always so encouraging to each other. We all shared tips and tricks when we could. And newcomers were greeted with enthusiasm. Kids who came rarely got into trouble simply because they were so intrigued with everything they saw. The Turks Head Jugglers really made me feel accepted. I could be myself there.

And although I haven’t had much time for stacking cups or juggling anymore, I still try to head over to the gym for a visit once in a while. Each time I do, I find myself inspired by their encouragement. I feel welcome and accepted. For me, as someone on the autism spectrum, that is an awesome feeling.

If you or someone you know is looking for a group like this, there are lots of ways to find one. See if there is an adult evening school catalog for your area, and look at the classes they offer. You could look at a local college or school district and check out the list of clubs they have. You can also check out your local Department of Recreation. If you are looking specifically for a juggling group, check out this list of clubs by the International Jugglers’ Association. Above all, follow your interests, and don’t forget to have fun!

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When It Feels Like My Child With Autism and I Have Arrived in a ‘New Land’

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I follow a lot of blogs and have noticed they all differ on how they decide to show the world what their lives are like with autism. We all want to spread awareness for autism — I know that for a fact. We want inclusion for our children, we want needed services for our children and we want the same rights for your children and our children.

Still, my child with autism is very young, and I feel like we’ve just arrived in a “new land.”

Parents with older kids or adult children on the spectrum have definitely paved the way for “newbie” parents like myself. I wouldn’t know half of what I know if it weren’t for them. And what I didn’t learn from them, I learned from people with autism themselves.

I can still remember the emotions I felt after getting my child’s diagnosis. I also know what it’s like to want answers from professionals and not get them and to be sent on my way to this new land.

I just want to learn as much as I can, so I can set my child up to one day live alone in this land.

When I got here, I wanted to be accepted and taken in right away. But just like a new kid at school, not everyone accepts you. I get that. It’s OK, but I sure as hell will teach my child that if she wants acceptance in this land, she has to accept all others here, too.

In this land, there are differences of quirks, stims and, most of all, there are differences in opinions. Isn’t that what makes life in this land great?

Our life with autism might not be like your life with autism, but it’s not uncommon to find someone in our community who we can relate to. Whether your child is younger, older, a girl, a boy, or whether you’re a parent, a self-advocate or advocating for a loved one, we all live here!

In this land, your house may be bigger, and you may have more friends at your parties. And if that’s the case, good for you. You’ve done well for yourself.

I’m just sitting here unpacking our stuff, settling in and getting adjusted to our new life in our new land.

Others may also join us and move in here, too, and I’ll make sure to say “hi” and “welcome” as they come on in.

Follow this journey on Melissa’s Facebook page.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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5 Ways We're Helping Our Child on the Autism Spectrum Prepare for Preschool

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My daughter Laila recently turned 3 years old and has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum all in the same month. There are many changes happening to our household and her life following the diagnosis. The biggest one is that she will be starting a special education preschool program in the fall.

Laila has stayed home with me for the past three years. Together we have had our share of dancing, snacks and Disney princess movies. When I started noticing delays in her development, she entered early intervention through our county’s public school system. She received speech and occupational therapy on a weekly basis at home. School is going to be a big deal, and as excited as I am for her to experience new things, as an parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I can’t help but worry and wonder about so many things.

She is mostly nonverbal, she hasn’t had friends yet and she is not potty-trained. So my fellow parents, I would like to share with you five things my family is doing to prepare her for the start of the school year in the hopes that we can all start a conversation full of ideas, tips and support for all our little ones embarking on this new adventure.

1. Print out a picture of the school.

Laila’s speech therapist printed out a PECS (picture exchange communication system) picture of school for her. She was in a transitional group where she was learning what school was all about, and she carried her PECS card to and from the classroom. Her father and I repeated the word “school” to her over and over again. We still look at the card on a daily basis, and I repeat the sentence “Laila is going to go to school.” I point out school and classrooms on TV shows and in movies, and we have been reading plenty of books about school and preschool. I’m never sure how much she understands, but I know it’s a step in making her more comfortable once the big day arrives.

2. Point out school buses.

A school bus will be picking up my daughter and taking her to and from school. I’ve tried pointing out school buses on the road to her as we see them drive by. My local elementary school holds summer classes, and we will be taking a walk to see the school buses before classes start. I figure, the more comfortable she gets with these new things, the easier the transition will be. At least, that is my hope!

3. Communicate about potty-training.

Potty-training a nonverbal child on the autism spectrum can be tough. Her preschool will help in potty-training. We talk about potty-training, and we try to get her to sit on her potty from time to time, but I don’t pressure her to. It’s all about making her comfortable with the concept of it.

4. Meet the teachers.

I am lucky to live in a county where my daughter’s preschool teachers will be making home visits to our household in order to get to know her better. I want to tell them so much about my daughter and who she is as a human being. They will get a chance to see her in her home environment. I suggest my fellow parents make an effort to attend back-to-school nights or meet-and-greets with the teachers. Even if it’s just introducing yourself on the first day of school, your heart will be set at ease knowing you’ve met the person who is in charge of your child throughout the day.

5. Start a schedule.

This is always easier said than done, but I am going to print out a simple schedule with visual cues so she may get used to following one. Wake-up time, breakfast time, play time, snack time, reading time, etc. Make one that is best for your child’s day at home. She will have to follow a similar one at school, so I figured consistency between school and home will help her the most.

Good luck to everyone, and good luck to our little ones starting this great, new adventure. May this school year be full of growth and learning!

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5 Ways to Transform Autism Advocacy Through the Art of Storytelling

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One day, a kindergarten teacher was walking around her class, checking in on her students to see how they were progressing on their art assignment. Pleased with what she was seeing, she continued to move about the room, slowly pacing by each child’s desk, periodically pausing and offering words of praise and affirmation to her young pupils. She rounded the corner towards the back of her classroom and as she approached young Sarah, she saw what looked to be the beginning stages of an interesting art project.

The teacher leaned over to get a closer look at Sarah’s picture. When she was unable to discern what the picture was, she said to her, “Sarah, that’s an interesting picture, what are you drawing?” Without looking up, Sarah replied, “I’m drawing a picture of God!” Stunned for a brief moment, the teacher chuckled and said to Sarah, “Oh honey, no one really knows what God looks like.” Without so much of a flinch of confusion, Sarah confidently replied, “They will when I’m done with my picture!”

I believe the best pictures of the divine sometimes come from what some people would consider the most unlikely of sources. As a pastor and public speaker, I can testify to the importance of storytelling as one of the most powerful forms of art. The ability to weave words together to create a tapestry of images that inspire the mind and stir the soul is indeed artistic — and it is actually my autism that has given me this precious gift. My advocacy is my art, autism is my canvas and my work is to inspire people to experience the divine in the most unlikely of sources and in some of the most unlikely spaces.

For me, autism self-advocacy is an art form aimed at accentuating the beauty found in our humanity. Autism awareness and acceptance should be about expanding people’s exposure to the life of autistic people. That can’t be done with statistics; it can only be done with the art of telling stories.

1. Share the sacred.

The best pictures of the divine are painted on the canvas of the deepest and most sacred places of our hearts. Sacred is whatever is separated for a special purpose. My routines, my repetitive behavior, my sensory processing issues are all sacred spaces that serve a special purpose. They are more than “quirks” — they are what makes me complete. When you share what’s sacred to you, it has a way of painting a picture of a person who isn’t flawed or broken, but rather one who is filled with faith, hope, and strength.

2. Share your struggles.

Life is art. Every part of it. There are no moments in life that have no meaning, even the bad ones. Autism comes with its share of struggles, but all art is the process of creating beauty from ashes. The art of storytelling includes sharing your struggles so that others can be inspired to survive theirs. Your struggles give credence to your creativity as an artist, so never be afraid to allow your art to be created from places where you may feel conflicted.

3. Share your suspicions.

True art questions. True art critiques. True art combines the gifts of critical observation with the power of curious optimism. When you share your story, create the type of art that challenges the world to challenge itself by questioning itself, critiquing itself, and developing the type of curiosity that both demands and inspires change.

4. Share your strengths.

I believe the art of story telling requires faith. Art requires faith because it creates beauty from places where nothing beautiful exists. The goal and the role of both faith and art has never been safety. The role of art and faith is courage. Living with autism is living with strength, passion, and perseverance. Your story is a story of strength and skill that is so profound and powerful that it is artistic. You are not limited, and you are not a liability. You are strong, so share your strength with the world.

5. Share your suggestions.

Good art captures the eyes. Great art captures the ears. Telling your story doesn’t just ask for attention, telling your story can ask for adjustments. Your story is so incredibly valuable to the world that it serves as a voice. Your story, your art, and your voice deserves to be taken seriously, and with that responsibility comes the responsibility to offer your solutions and your suggestions for ways that the world can be a better place for the autism community.

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Living in Both the 'Autism World' and the 'Neurotypical World'

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Every day I have to function in two different realities. There is my everyday reality. It is a world full of deadlines, schedules, and demands. It is loud and confusing. There are so many rules, and very few of them actually make any sense.

Then there is my native reality. It is the place where everything comes easy. In this reality people can communicate without any language and still understand each other. Here everyone is smart, even if it isn’t apparent. However, it is a place I only get to visit, to retreat to when I have no other demands or if the world gets to be so much that I just cannot take it anymore.

I think this is why many individuals with autism say autism is good and it is the world that has the problem. I have a different perspective. My perspective is unique because I see autism from so many different angles.

I am autistic. I know what it is like to grow up unable to communicate to the world. I understand the inability to vocalize what is in my head. I was bullied, misunderstood, and spent my childhood not fitting into any mold.

I am also the mother of two children on the spectrum. I have a teenage son and a pre-teen daughter who both have Asperger’s and ADHD. I have navigated the world of autism as both a mother of a boy and a girl on the spectrum. They are two very different worlds.

I also have a professional background in autism. I have a BA in psychology and an MS in Applied Developmental Psychology. I finished my master’s with a thesis on autism and continued on to work as an ABA therapist helping children with autism.

I do not believe autism is bad, but I also do not believe it is realistic to expect the world to change for individuals with autism. I love the autism world. I love escaping into my obsession. It is peaceful and easy. I do not have to work hard to interact with other individuals with autism. We speak the same language – the language of autism. I have on many occasions “translated” for children with autism to their neurotypical parents and/or teachers. It is a language I know how to read without trying. It is my language.

Yet it is not the world I get to live in. The reality is I have to navigate the neurotypical world to provide for my children. I have to advocate for their needs. I had to obtain an education and get a job. I cannot walk out of my job because of social interactions. I have to live in the neurotypical world even if it is not my native world.

I would not give up being autistic. I see the world in a way that is different from my neurotypical peers. It helps to manage the complex nature of my job. I also do not think I could have the patience to raise my children if I was not autistic. I have the understanding to know what they are experiencing, as well as the ability to not react until a situation has passed. This skill has grown as I have aged, but it is a skill that comes with being autistic.

Yet what I wouldn’t give to be able to go one day without having to work at everything. I would love to have something come easily. I would love to not have to talk through every interaction to see where I screwed up and why the other person is looking at me like they do not understand me at all (or maybe I am just reading them wrong… again).

Then there is seeing my children struggle. Being autistic and an adult is hard. Being autistic and a child is next to impossible. Everyone expects you to function like you are neurotypical (even if they know you are not), yet you do not have the skills to do so.

I think the autistic community has a lot in common with the Deaf community, in terms of culture. In both cultures you can be the only member of your family that belongs to the community. It can leave you even more alone and isolated. You have to weave in and out of cultures wondering where you truly belong, or if you belong anywhere. 

Image via Thinkstock.

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