Legoland employee talking to a young boy.

To make its theme park more enjoyable for everyone, Legoland Florida is implementing a number of changes that will make the park a better place for parkgoers on the autism spectrum. Last March, the park announced it was partnering with Autism Speaks to make a number of sensory-friendly additions to its Winter Haven, Florida location. This April, as part of Autism Awareness Month, the park will unveil those new features.

Autistic visitors will now be able to take advantage of the theme park’s new “Hero Pass,” a free pass that allows those with autism and their families to skip the line at popular attractions. The park will also feature multiple quiet rooms stocked with noise-cancelling headphones, weighted blankets, sensory-friendly toys and tables where kids can play with Legos.

Children with autism can also utilize social stories created by the park – illustrated stories designed to walk visitors through rides and other park attractions so they know what to expect. Legoland is also training its new employees, known as “model citizens,” how to interact with guests on the autism spectrum and their families.

Autism Speaks applauds the efforts of Legoland Florida Resort to provide special accommodations so that guests on the autism spectrum can maximize their park experience,” Karen Bacharach, senior director of Autism Speaks, told The Mighty.

Those interested in visiting Legoland, and living in Florida, can get discounted tickets through the North and Central Florida chapter of Autism Speaks, The Huffington Post reports.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Peacock/LEGOLAND Florida Resort

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April is autism awareness month. I hope I spread awareness daily through my stories of home life. I don’t want you to wear a specific color or donate to a cause. What I do want you to do is accept my family norm and learn from our stories.

Autism became most apparent to us when it entered our lives in October of 2010. Gabriel was 18 months at the time and began to regress in many ways: speech, motor activity and eating. In hindsight, signs had been there before, but he is our first child so how could we know? We called Early Intervention and soon found out about his diagnosis. I adore my son. He has autism and he is like no other being in the world. I’ve never seen a more loving, sweet, kind, well-behaved child. His mannerisms are gentle and he seems generally happy to me.

Do I want a “cure” for his autism? No. But I do want his life to be easier. I want him to be accepted, to be welcomed, to not be discriminated against. Watching my son’s delight as he witnesses other kids having fun is pure joy. I believe he simply wants to be.

I’m tired of being told, “Nah, it’s not because he has autism.” Or being told his therapy appointments or specialized activities are “excuses to turn down other things.” I won’t go into detail about the amount of therapy and understanding a child on the autism spectrum might need. These are needs, not excuses.

When I tell you my son has autism, please don’t say, “I’m sorry.” Why should you be sorry? I am not sorry. I adore my son and I am proud of him. Don’t say words like “normal” or the “R” word. Don’t say, “My child can’t do that either,” assuming challenges are easy to overcome. And don’t tell me, “He’ll grow out of it.” It? A lifelong developmental disability?

Look at my son’s abilities. He is authentic and genuine and shows no guile. He is gentle and caring — he shows empathy and love. He understands everything. He is smart, reads at 4  years old, can make his point using different forms of communication. He even ice skates and plays like other children. My hope is once you meet and know Gabriel, your view of autism will be forever changed.

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Thinkstock image by DragonImages


I spy with my little eye, something beginning with AA.

Not Alcoholics Anonymous. No, not the Automobile Association. I’m talking Autism Awareness.

In the run up to Autism Awareness Week and Day and Month and Millennia, I’ve been thinking about what I really want the world to be aware of.

Most people have heard the word “autism.” They’re aware it exists, but that might be about it.

Even those who have autistic family members might not recognize the adults in their midst. No, I don’t look like your child, for much the same reason you don’t look like my 3-year-old. Autistics grow up, too. An adult autistic — no matter how verbal or not — has still had a lifetime of acquiring skills and learning and developing, that a child has not.

When experts talk about autism — trainers at work, speakers at conferences  — they often seem to forget there will be autistic people in the audience. We become “they.” We are “othered” by the very people who are supposed to know the most about us.

I don’t want you to just be aware that autism exists; I want you to be aware of our existence. We are the mothers at the school gate, the co-worker in your office, the woman who sits at the same seat on your bus, the man walking his dogs.

We are not an alien species; we live among you.

We’re your friend who speaks passionately about the things she loves and might be terrible at keeping in touch regularly. We’re the coach who is obsessed with bringing the best out in everyone. We’re the paramedic who solved your issue. We’re the doctor who worked out what was wrong.

We’re here. Everyday and permanently here.

Every day we meet the world more than halfway. We do our best to do things your way. We let ourselves get swept along by your rituals, and then behind closed doors we recover.

There is no one type of autistic. Some of us are caring and lovely and kind, some of us are selfish and mean. In other words, we’re people.

People who happen to have a processor that provides them with questions, while other people’s processors might give them answers. That’s the only difference to me. That is my definition of autism.

On Autism Awareness Day, be aware. When you speak about autism we are listening. We love it when you get it right, and we love it even more when you hand the platform to us and let us speak for ourselves.

Be inclusive. Be actively inclusive. Look at spaces critically, ask yourself how you already meet people’s sensory needs.

We need the world and the world needs us. We are your problem-solvers, your repetitive-routine lovers, your I-would-rather-get-on-with-work-than-chat workers.

If you think you’ve never met an autistic adult, you’re wrong. You just were not aware.

We are here, planning our quiet, unsociable revolutions. Waiting for the world to accept us and to see that “autistic” is not a pejorative term, it’s just factual, it just is. It doesn’t mean “problematic” or “stupid” or “un-empathetic.” It’s just a social-processing issue. No more, no less.

My art teacher once told me I was a cat in a world of dogs — that I didn’t need people the way others do. Did you know that Catsuit is an anagram for autistic? Coincidence? Well… yes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t raise my eyebrows suggestively and make it sound meaningful.

Oh, and autistic has two i’s. If you noticed that small detail, then perhaps you’re closer to autism than you think!

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My son, Adam, is 13 today. I now have three teenagers. I have to continually repeat this to myself for I often wonder how the heck this happened so quickly. But then again, the time it took to get here feels like an eternity. In some ways, having teenaged children seems like an “old hat.” I’ve enjoyed every minute of preparing for homecoming dances, prom and first dates. I’ve survived driver’s education, passing the driver’s test and taking the car out for the first time. I have even survived a first “accident.”  So far, I feel fairly unscathed. College applications are just around the corner, but I’m feeling confident watching my daughter navigate the process while I stand on the sidelines giving her my full support. So far, so good.

Yesterday, I asked Adam what he wanted to do on his birthday besides going to “The Friday’s Restaurant” for dinner. I like to take my kids to do something special; I believe an experience — rather than something material — will be remembered long after their birthday is over. This past year, we took Lacey to a concert, Alex saw “Hamilton” and Adam chose the car wash. I am not surprised; it’s what he enjoys. He goes to bed by 8:30 p.m. On most days, he wakes up by 6:30 am. He keeps his room in order, although the “order” may only make sense to him. He can always find his things; he puts them in the same spot every time. His LEGO helicopters are placed and labeled in various places in his room. He even has a certain color he wears for each day of the week.

Not too long ago, I was going through a mountain of pictures which at one time were intended for Pinterest-worthy scrapbooks. It was on this day I realized how unorganized my pictures were. I could barely narrow down the exact year most of the photos were taken. However, it occurred to me I could tell the exact day of the week a picture was taken based on the color of shirt Adam was wearing. I was suddenly grateful for his patterns.

While some aspects about Adam can be predictable, there are aspects that have been more complicated. I look back on the years of medical specialists, infections, surgeries, sleepless nights and battles with the education system. I reflect on the amount of experts who gave us their “professional” opinion “preparing” us for things they said he would never do. I look back on the immeasurable amount of time we invested into finding the appropriate resources to prove what Adam was capable of.

But though there were challenges, I would not change my life for anything. I would not change my son for anything. Adam has taught me more about patience, persistence, faith and resilience than anyone else ever could.

But today, my “hat” feels a bit unfamiliar, a bit different. I’m about to prepare for homecoming dances and prom from the vantage point of autism. And will there be a first date? Only time will tell.

Then there’s driver’s education. Adam’s plan of getting his permit at 15 and getting his driver’s license at 16 may follow a slightly different timeline. But I have full confidence he will be behind that wheel some day. The one thing I do know for sure is his grand plan of getting a blue Corolla for his 16th birthday is not going to happen.

And I’m excited to see what college brings. I continue to hear about phenomenal post-secondary programs for individuals with autism.

For now, I will focus on day one of my son’s teen years with autism. I’m fairly certain that I’m in for quite the ride.

Black and white photo of author's son as a child

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

Follow this journey on Kimberly’s blog.

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I have always said, there is something about Felicity. Not sure what it is. Perhaps she’s an old soul who when arriving on this planet fussed to no end because she wasn’t content in just being a baby. Perhaps she is pure. Felicity always surprises me…sometimes in ways that try my patience.

Last week Felicity turned 8. I have shared how Felicity started out struggling. I shared how neighbors would check to see if I was OK because her colic had her crying from dawn to dusk and I shared how she’s truly the meaning of her name, happiness.

Today, as I rushed around trying to get dinner cooked, homework complete and make sure we had all we needed for the next day, she appeared. She stood before me and asked to create. You see, Felicity also creates… a lot… and often leaves her creations (and creative methods all over the house for the little ones to get and use in various places such as couches), so we have a rule: you must ask to create. And she did. I agreed and looked up as she ran to grab the markers, paint, pens and pencils and prop herself up at the table. I was chatting with my good friend and glanced over to see, “I love Austin.”

“You love Austin? Who is Austin,” I wondered when she piped up and said, “No! I love autism.”

“You love autism?” I asked, and instantly I smiled. Truth is, this kid pointed out what I already knew. I love autism too. It has its challenges, but I love it for so many reasons.

little girl holding sign that says i love autism

I love that I have become more patient.

I love that I have become more understanding.

I love that autism has made my children more aware of others with disability.

I love that autism is finally showing me what I am supposed to do with my life and why I believe God chose to have me here on earth.

I love that autism teaches me to relish in the moments. I love that because of autism, I live, eat and breathe milestones, and those simple sentences you never thought twice about become gems you share with friends.

I love that autism has made my marriage better.

I love that autism has taught me to allow myself to be snuggled and cuddled the way a mom should be.

I won’t pretend we don’t have our challenges. I won’t pretend I don’t question myself as a wife, mother and friend, but I will celebrate our struggles when I am reminded of all the good autism brings.

As I said today to someone: I never planned this journey, but the girl who is guiding me along the way is my hero because she’s made me the person I was intended to be.

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To help promote autism awareness, acceptance and understanding, PBS KIDS will air autism-themed episodes of several popular children’s shows throughout April, Autism Awareness Month.

PBS KIDS’ autism-themed programing starts April 10 with the “Meet Julia” episode of “Sesame Street,” which introduces the show’s newest character, Julia, a muppet on the autism spectrum. The channel will also be featuring autism-related episodes of “Dinosaur Train” and “Arthur.”

“Our PBS KIDS Autism Awareness Month programming is important as we reflect the diversity of our audience through our characters. The more kids can relate to these characters, the more they will learn from them,” Linda Simensky, vice president of children’s programming at PBS, told The Mighty. “We feel that including special needs and disabilities into that definition of diversity is vital, and we want to set an example for kids so that they are comfortable interacting and communicating with those who may be a little different from them.”

In addition to autism-friendly programming, PBS also offers a website for parents featuring educational resources and a website for teachers with materials and activities for kids on the spectrum.

The full schedule is as follows:

Sesame Street 

“Meet Julia”

Sesame Street residents meet Julia, Sesame Street’s newest addition, a red-haired, green-eyed muppet on the autism spectrum.

Dinosaur Train 

“Junior Conductor’s Academy (Part I)” – April 10

The kids are all excited! Why? Because they’re off to Junior Conductor’s Academy in Laramidia to try to become Junior Conductors First Class. Buddy has a feeling he’s going to be a star in class, until he meets Dennis Deinocheirus – a kid who knows even more dinosaur facts than he does! Can Buddy get over his disappointment that he’s not the smartest kid in class, and make friends with Dennis (who seems like he’s having trouble making friends on his own)?

“Junior Conductor’s Academy (Part II)” – April 10

Now that Buddy and Dennis are friends, they have to work together (with the other kids) in order to pass a series of tests. If they succeed, they’ll receive their Junior Conductors First Class pins! But standing in the way of their success is the most challenging instructor of all… Thurston Troodon!

Arthur

“When Carl Met George/D.W. Swims with the Fishes” – April 10

George is excited about spending time with his new friend, Carl, who seems to know all kind of cool facts about trains and about… well lots of things! Then George learns that Carl has Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes Carl see the world differently than most people. Can George and Carl remain good friends – and perhaps even learn from each other?

“Pets and Pests/Go Fly a Kite” – April 11

There’s a mouse loose in the Read home! And D.W. wants it gone… NOW! When traps fail, Arthur enlists the help of an expert mouse catcher…a fearless hunter who laughs in the face of danger: Nemo??  / While playing in the park, Binky, Muffy, and Ladonna stumble upon an abandoned kite. After failing to find the owner, the trio decides to take joint custody of the toy. But sharing it is easier said than done…

“Carl’s Concerto/Too Much of a Good Thing” – April 12

Carl has agreed to play the accordion for George’s puppet show. But his routines are getting in the way of rehearsals. Now George must decide: keep Carl and risk the show, or replace Carl and risk his friendship? / Buster enlists Binky’s help to keep him from gorging on delicious Tuvaluna cookies. Will Buster’s self-control hold…or crumble?

“He Said, He Said/Bunny Trouble” – April 13

A special episode of Bionic Bunny is interrupted, and Arthur, Buster, and George try to remember what comes next. But Carl is the only one who can straighten out the story. / D.W. is excited to be taking care of the class bunny, Larry. But when Larry is feeling adventurous and wanders off, it’s up to Ladonna the “Bunny Whisperer” to help get him back.

Real People. Real Stories.

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