A couple months ago, Jamie asked me, “What do you think we should get the kids for Christmas?” “I don’t know,” I said, “What did we get them last year?” “I don’t remember,” she said. “Neither do I,” I said. “Kids! Come in here!” I shouted, “Do you remember what you got for Christmas last year?” They both thought about it for a second, but couldn’t remember. “Let me ask this,” I said, “What do you remember about our ski trip to Whistler last January?” Everyone was quick to shout out two or three memories of how much fun we had on that trip. “That’s it,” I told Jamie, “No more gifts under the tree. Let’s make memories instead.”
Jamie and I decided to book a trip to Disneyland where we would leave two days after Christmas and spend four days in the parks. We kept it a secret all the way to Christmas. And knowing that the kids would feel a bit robbed not seeing any gifts under the tree, we decided to wrap up a couple of essential items they actually needed, and then do a progression of gifts that let them in little by little to the plan that would unfold over the next few days. It was pretty fun.
The main story behind this post is not what we did for Christmas. Rather, we would like to share this story in an effort to encourage other families to take chances and push the boundaries of what they think is possible parenting through special needs situations. Getting on a plane to travel, and entering the gates of maybe the most sensory-intense park in the world at the busiest time of year can spell complete disaster for many autism families. Honestly, for Jamie and me, it was a coin flip. But we talk so much about not letting autism dictate our entire lives, and we encourage others to try ridiculous things. It’s even a chapter in my upcoming book. On top of that, Max had actually started talking about Disneyland again.
It was spring of 2018 when we were there for Max’s first time. It was nuts. The stimulation for Max was off the charts. To this day, Max’s most epic melt down was in California Adventure before I forced him to go on Radiator Springs Racers (which minutes later became his favorite ride in either park). On that trip, Max was unwilling to ride on over half the attractions due to fear. We sort of felt bad for bringing him to a place that gave him so much anxiety, but we made the most of it (plus, he was REALLY excited about some of the rides, and we did have a lot of fun). Since that trip, Max had begun to talk about going again.
Before the trip was ever booked, we did discuss with Max that we weren’t going back to Disneyland until he was ready to go on more of the bigger rides. Eventually, he decided that he was up for the challenge, but there would still be several rides on the “absolutely not” list. With that information, Jamie and I had the courage to give another trip a try. And in true Youngquist fashion, we would go non-stop, open to close, for four days in a row.
We spent day one at Disney California Adventure. This was Max’s favorite park from the previous trip, and felt it would be best to ease him into with some familiarity. However, one of the “absoulutely not” rides was Grizzly River Run, a wild water ride with lots of spinning and big drops that guarantees that you get wet. I knew why it was on the “absolutely not” list. It was all things Max hates – drops, turbulence, loud bears growling at you over the speakers, and getting wet while fully clothed. Honestly, I hadn’t planned on trying to get him to go on the ride, but something came over me.
“Buddy, let’s give Grizzly a try,” I said. “NO WAY!” he said. “Absolutely NOT!” If you remember my post from last summer about the Vancouver roller coaster (link at the bottom), I had to really focus on my coercion tactics. I stood there very calmly and didn’t respond right away. And then I replied, “Max, do you remember last time we were here, the biggest blow up of your life happened right over there when I was trying to get you to go on Radiator Springs Racers. You screamed at me and cried, and I still made you do it. And what is your favorite ride on the whole world today?” “Radiator Springs,” he said surprisingly calm. I kept going, “I forced you to go on that ride because I knew you would love it. There are a few rides in this park that I know you won’t like, and I will NOT force you to go on them. But I’m going to make you ride Grizzly, and then you can decide if you like it or not.” To the shock to everyone in the family, Max looked up at me and said, “OK, let’s do it.”
A minute later, we were in line. I was frantically trying to round up some recycled ponchos for the family. When I had gathered them all, I rejoined everyone. It was cold when we were there. I knew we were going to get wet and I knew it was going to be uncomfortable. Max looked at me and said, “I don’t want a poncho.” “Are you sure dude?” I said, “You’re going to get wet and it’s cold.” “I don’t want a poncho,” he said, “I’m good.”
So off we went. I kept a close eye on him the whole way as the ride is a circular tube with seats around the perimeter. At first, I couldn’t tell if the look on his face was excitement or terror. About half way through the ride, I yelled to him, “Are you doing OK?” He glanced at me with big eyes, “This is crazy!!” That was all I needed. I knew he was loving it.
When we got off the ride, we jumped right back in line. He was hooked.
That episode kicked off a myriad of ‘wins’ for our trip. One by one, we checked off many of the rides that had scared Max during the prior trip. We counted seven attractions total. Only one of them did Max decide that he didn’t want to do again. It was Splash Mountain. We knew the big drop at the end might be too much for Max. We went anyway. When the ride was over, and we were off and walking to the next attraction, he looked over at me and very calmly stated, “I did NOT like that ride at all.” I laughed and told him that I was proud of him for giving it a try and that we didn’t have to do it again.
The trip was a huge success for our family. Instead of a bunch of gifts under the tree, we decided to make memories. It will go down in the books as one of our best trips ever. We even got to ring in the New Year from atop the Matterhorn Bobsleds with fireworks going off over our heads. Unreal.
We rolled the dice on this one, or flipped a coin, or whatever you want to call it. We took a chance. We tried the ridiculous. Sometimes we experience utter failure when we try this sort of thing. Sometimes we score huge. The point is that we tried. We want to encourage other families in our shoes to do the same.
Push the boundaries. Try the impossible. You might fail. You might experience the most profound event of your life. Without trying though, you’ll never know what your family is capable of. Autism is not a death sentence, nor is it a prison sentence. So get out there and try.