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How Trips to Disneyland Helped Our Son With Sensory Processing Disorder

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It’s always a special treat when we learn a guilty pleasure is good for us, like when you read studies about the health benefits of drinking wine or eating dark chocolate. It’s like a private party of justification and validation in one. Woot, woot!

That is exactly how I felt when I was told by my son’s occupational therapist (OT) that our frequent trips to Disneyland were a version of sensory therapy. It was like I’d won the sensory lottery.

See, my son is an avoider. As a baby, he never slept soundly. 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 the 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 suggested I take him to Disneyland. I wasn’t so sure. 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 dreamiest and most magical place we’ve ever taken our son to. 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 OK). He stayed in the comfort of his stroller, observing the spectacles before him and loving it.

We did what any parents in this situation might 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 he could get a closer look at attractions like “A Bug’s Land.” We watched that show every day, sometimes multiple times. And he even started singing along! My son didn’t talk, so this was huge. Yes, it was echolalia, but it was something and we were thrilled.

As the year went by, my son would never go near a character, dare to ride a ride or try a new food. But he made progress in his own right and 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 that we learned about our son’s sensory processing disorder. Once we found our pediatric OT, we were lucky to begin an intensive program, and even luckier to learn our frequent Disneyland trips received an A-plus.

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 out, 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 welcome your extra efforts might be 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.

Jackie Linder Olson the mighty.1

Follow this journey on Peace, Autism and Love.

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Originally published: July 22, 2015
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