Ed note: As of ten minutes ago, the following is sitting in an inbox in Orlando waiting for a member of Disney’s customer service department to open it. I pray that it is someone who will take the time to read it – really read it – and to understand why I felt I had to send it.
Dear Walt Disney World Management,
My husband and I recently returned from a weeklong stay at Disney World with our two daughters, ten year-old Katie, and eight year-old Brooke, who has autism.
Through the network of incredibly supportive readers that follow my blog, Diary of a Mom, we had heard from all corners of the autism community that Disney has made a concerted effort to accommodate families like ours and that you welcome our children with open arms. For most of our stay at Disney, that was precisely what we found to be the case.
We were grateful beyond measure for the Guest Assistance Card that allowed us to largely bypass the long lines that would have otherwise made the parks nearly impossible for Brooke to access no less enjoy.
We were deeply touched by the kindnesses of Cast Members who went out of their way to help when our girl was obviously having difficulty. As such, we are forever indebted to the Fairy Godmothers at the Bippity Boppity Boutique who dang near contorted themselves to make the princess experience accessible to my daughter, to the gentleman who snatched us from a line to escort us through a back door to see Tinkerbell in the Fairy Meadow when she was incapable of waiting and to the incredibly thoughtful Cast Member who did the same as we were waiting to visit the princesses in the Main Street Theater, then gave us vouchers for popcorn when he heard our girl say that she was hungry.
These seemingly small gestures were anything but to a family that struggles with the challenges of autism. Instead, it was moments like these that made your parks a viable destination for us. We are incredibly grateful for each and every one of them.
It is in this context that I share with you the following.
Brooke loves your characters. She was over the moon at the prospect of meeting them – from the Little Einsteins at Hollywood Studios to Tigger and Pooh at the Animal Kingdom, Mickey and Minnie on Main Street USA and of course her favorites, Pluto, Goofy and Donald at Epcot.
When we visited Epcot on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 30th, I was thrilled when a handler noticed the Guest Assistance Card in my hand and ushered us right to the front of the line to see the characters. Brooke was vibrating with excitement as her turn neared. As soon as it was time, the Cast Member who had seen the card guided us over to Pluto.
As we visited with each character, I kept the GAC out and visible, making sure that each handler and photographer could see it. I had found throughout our stay that it was an unobtrusive way to alert Cast Members to Brooke’s challenges.
As you may know, people with autism (and other social/emotional disabilities) often display behaviors that may be considered odd to the casual observer. My daughter for instance, did not necessarily interact with the characters in the way that most other children do. Instead of simply hugging them, she tried to actively engage them. You see, despite her age, she still believes that the characters are real. To her, there is no reason that they shouldn’t want to talk with her, joke with her, even dance or play Ring Around the Rosy with her. In her delicious innocence, she believes them to be her friends.
And so it was that she approached Donald and asked him if he was a banana. Yup, a banana. Because, well, that’s kind of Donald’s sort of humor, isn’t it? But Donald didn’t play along as one might have hoped he would. He didn’t put his hands to his head in a “Gosh that’s silly” sort of way nor turn his palms upward in an exaggerated “Whut?!”
Instead, he shook his head “No” and then made the international gesture for “Crazy.” Actually, during her brief time with him, he made it twice. I happened to catch their interaction on video. Please view it below.
I hope you understand why I feel the need to share this with you.
It may be easy to dismiss me as an oversensitive special needs mother. We do have our moments; I know. But in THAT moment – as I stood there watching Donald Duck call my autistic daughter crazy – or mixed up in the head – well, it stung. You see, autism is a neurological disorder that causes social and emotional impairments. So to direct that particular gesture to a little girl who many might basely argue is indeed ‘mixed up in the head’ is no different than if Donald had greeted a child in a wheelchair by pointing to his legs and laughing. It’s hurtful, and it simply can’t be tolerated.
The one upside? Her big sister, my extremely protective ten year-old, happened to be elsewhere. Had she seen Donald mocking her sister, the Crystal Palace might well have been serving duck a l’orange for dinner that evening.
Joking aside, I try hard not to let the small stuff get to me. But just as the wonderful moments I described above are not really so small at all, neither was this one. I trust you understand why.
There were so many other choices that Donald could have made – so many other ways to react to a little girl with a developmental disability attempting – in her own unique way – to reach out to him.
The obvious compassion of so many of your Cast Members over the course of our stay made it obvious to us that as a whole, you welcome our families and seek to accommodate our children so that they (and their typical siblings) can experience the magic of Disney like everyone else. If that is truly the case, I respectfully ask that you talk to your staff about this. That you show them the video and use it as a tool to discuss what it means to be sensitive to the children they meet, no matter how they may choose to engage them. And of course, that you praise the kindnesses shown to our family and hold them up as shining examples for others to follow.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of help in any way.
Thank you for your time, your compassion and your dedication to creating a world of magic that is accessible to our children.