The Great American Experience

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This post isn't exactly late so much as it was withheld because I wanted to take time to digest the experience before I wrote about it. It's hard to believe two months have already flown by. Sorry it's long winded; this is as much about the autism and sensory experience as it is to document what was, for us, a major family milestone.   I promise more than half of it is just photos.

When summer was half over and I was wondering not just when to schedule Bear's first trip to Great America, but how to afford it, I got an email from the local special needs support group about Autism Awareness Day at Great America, sponsored by the Autism Society of Illinois.  The kicker?  Huge ticket discount. 

The bonus was that one of our nearest and dearest (hereafter: Dear Friend Ava/DFA) - whom Bear adores - could come along to be an extra pair of hands. An experienced spectrummy, Sensory Processing Disorder pair of hands. So, we went for it. 

I should mention I was nervous about going in July with a child so sensitive to heat.  Thankfully it was a manageable 85 that day, plus I bought a personal mister fan to help control his body temperature.  He freaks out if someone else sprays him with water; but, he is perfectly happy to spray himself.  Worth noting I've seen several products like this on the market; I bought this one because the fan blades are kid friendly soft foam.

The Autism Awareness Day flyer indicated there would be a quiet area with sensory activities set up for spectrum families that day.  At the time it sounded like this amazing selling point... afterwards I couldn't help feeling they'd thrown us a bone. A moldy, half-chewed bone, at that. 

I was optimistic when we arrived to a half-empty parking lot.  That optimism lasted about 10 minutes - as long as it took us to get from the car to the lines of people and wall of deafening sound at the gates.  I didn't remember that the park blasts music and sales spiels at the gates to advertain the masses in the endless wait to get through the metal detectors and bag search.

We didn't even make it to the lines before I saw Bear's face change from happy excitement to panic.  I grabbed his headphones and got them on him as he was saying he wanted to leave. Thankfully the headphones did the trick.


MISS: It was Autism freakin Awareness Day.  Third Annual Autism freakin Awareness Day.  Surely in the three years that the ASI collaborated with the park someone, at some point, could have mentioned that the deafening music and wall of people at the entrance was going to be a non-starter for spectrum families?  It doesn't matter how much they discount our tickets if our kids go into sensory overload at the front door.


We figured out that strollers can only go through certain (longer, slower) lines and split up in order to get Bear through as quickly as possible.  So, AGeekDad and DFA took Bear while I tried to keep The Dude calm (he cried for a good portion of the hour long wait).  I already regretted the whole idea.

After making it through the gate we had to stand in another line to get his Ride Accessibility Pass, but it was quick and easy.

HIT: Great America's attitude about requesting a RAP for my autistic child was "No Problem!"  Just to be safe I called ahead; I barely even finished saying "my autistic son can't cope with the crowded lines" when the very sweet woman said "Of course he can't!" and gave me clear instructions for how to obtain the pass.  She even made a point of making sure I understood he qualified for the pass any day, not just Autism Day.

We used it sparingly because we did not want to take advantage of the privilege; he did well with short waits sans crowds and I wanted to give him the opportunity to be successful with that.  With the exception of one ride where the clueless operator never paid attention to the accessibility entrance, the pass was a godsend for Bear.  He could not visit with Six Flags without it.  So grateful to the park that they practice what they preach on this one.

It had been nearly 2 hours since we parked the van and we hadn't even made it past the entrance. This is when I noticed a lonely sign for Autism Awareness Day near the gates. I started to realize that sun-faded placard was all the awareness we were likely to get.

Since I wasn't in the mood to wait in a half hour bathroom line to use a baby changer, I nursed and changed The Dude on a park bench while AGeekDad and DFA took Bear on the carousel.  I'd hoped to go on it as a family since there isn't much for an infant can do, but this was Bear's day and I had to unclench my compulsively planned hopes for the day and go with the flow.

Bear decided to take the train next. It was nice for all of us to sit down together.

We headed to the kiddie area, but realized it was nearly 1:00 and decided to have lunch before Bear dysregulated from hunger. He was understandably too excited to want to eat.

Passing Kidzopolis on the way to eat worked to our advantage, because we had the promise of the rides Bear had just seen to get him through lunch.

To an neurotypical parent this looks like a kid eating pizza.  But spectrum and sensory parents will recognize this moment for what it is: is a long fought, hard won victory I wasn't sure I would ever see. The whole Six Flags thing was practically worth this moment.  My Bear picked up a piece of pizza. And then he ate it.

Almost worth the price of admission.

We earned an Advanced Parenting Merit Badge with the Dude: High Chair Daddy

After lunch we hit the kiddie rides.  After a brief struggle in which DFA miraculously convinced him he could not strip naked to run through the sprinklers, he opted for the planes.

DFA is the best. sport. EVAH.

The Dude was being a remarkably good sport considering it was his naptime...  until he wasn't. (And the answer to the obvious question is no, after paying for Great America tickets we didn't have a spare hundred bucks for a Dudesitter.)

At this point Bear was short circuity and insisting on the apple ride. Once again DFA saved the day, taking Bear on the apples while I circled the area just outside Kidzopolis trying to get The Dude to sleep.  AGeekDad took off to locate the mythical Autism Awareness Day Quiet Area; we all agreed it was time to give it a shot.


Sidebar: I had this crazy idea that amusement park planners would take into consideration that people in the kiddie area are probably going to have infants.  Infants who did not want to be in strollers all day. Why on earth must every square inch of grass a baby might crawl on be behind a barrier?


MISS: I was feeling desperate and overwhelmed by the constant noise.  And I don't mean the mechanical ride noises and riders screaming - that's bad enough by itself.  I mean the loudspeakers blaring obnoxious music everywhere you turn.  I kept thinking I would be able to find a quiet spot under a tree to give my poor overloaded brain a break and baby a chance to sleep, but every spot that even hinted at being such a refuge was ruined by loudspeakers mounted in the trees or on lamp posts. Thankfully the Dude's exhaustion was stronger than the noise, but I was really struggling.  Last time I was at this park (over 10 years ago) I had to leave early because the sensory overload triggered a horrific migraine.  Starting to think I have to give up my love of roller coasters.

Regardless, I had to wonder why the Autism Awareness Day organizers had not also suggested that the constant auditory bombardment would be a problem.  It seems to me that turning down - or better, turning off - the loudspeakers for one day, and replacing some of the obnoxious advertisements with an explanation of the relevance to Autism Awareness Day might actually spread some awareness. 


We followed the signs to the picnic area being used for Autism Day. 

Turns out, it's a concrete pavilion wedged between the backs of some rides and the train tracks, with all the noise you'd expect in that situation.  They had a crawling tunnel and some other stuff set up on the concrete between some picnic tables.  Bear and an older boy (I'm guessing 12ish, definitely nonverbal) played in the tunnel together and blew bubbles while a very nice volunteer from ASI talked to me to make sure our family has the services Bear needs, offer us educational advocacy and sign us up for emails about local events.  They also made sure we had gotten an RAP, which I thought was great because not everyone would know about that.

That was it. I was underwhelmed. We left.

Bear had spotted the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine ride on the way to the quiet break and there was no convincing him otherwise.  This is the one ride we tried where the operator seemed oblivious to the accessibility entrance, but luckily the line was less than 10 minutes.

I wanted to go on at least one ride, so we decided to give Roaring Rapids a shot.  Bear had seen it from the train and said he'd like to try it.  DFA understandably can't stand walking around in wet clothes, so she volunteered to hang with The Dude while we took Bear.


HIT: This was the first real test of the RAP.  I piggy-backed him up the long exit ramp, presented the pass and we were whisked right in. No one batted an eye.


MISS: One reason I thought Bear could manage this ride is that it's relatively slow and we could talk him through it (e.g. "here comes a little bump! Wheee - wasn't that fun?!").  When he's well regulated he can cope pretty well with things as long as he gets a heads-up. 

What I didn't count on was the station partway through the ride that seemed to have someone in it timing big jets of water for optimum rider soakage.  I heard the noise but didn't have time to lean forward to take the hit for Bear.  His face told me everything and I went straight into damage control mode.  Between being snuggled up sharing the seat with his Daddy and my repeated suggestion that was fun/silly/felt good because it was so hot, he calmed down and enjoyed the rest of the ride (I, however, remained at DefCon 5). 

Park employees seem to be in pretty close communication; would it be so hard on Autism Freakin Awareness Day to communicate the raft number to the guy in the water jet booth so as not to soak the little autistic kid with a giant jet of cold water?  Maybe that's too much to ask, I don't know. Going on the ride was a calculated risk, and it was a lesson learned.


I was constantly doing a cost/benefits analysis on how good a ride might be versus how much farther the experience would push his dial towards the red zone. My own sensory issues aside - not to mention a cranky, hot, stroller-bound baby - I was on red alert for Bear's sake and did not really enjoy myself.  But DFA and AGeekDad kept reassuring me that they were having fun and - most importantly - Bear was. And that's all that mattered.

We stopped for a quick snack and I watched Bear while he had a grand time hanging out in his own world.  Still hard to decipher everything I was feeling.  There was a lot of being proud of him.  A little bit of wondering if the people who saw him dancing and spinning next to the pretzel stand understood they were getting a lesson in awareness. There was some sadness that he needs to disappear like this, coupled with gratefulness that I do get him here in my world a lot of the time.

This may be the first time he's ever said "Mommy, I'm tired."  I gave him a lift to the next ride.  

He started insisting that roller coasters are scary and that he didn't want to go on one.  DFA told him the Little Dipper is a ride for kids and he eagerly followed her aboard. Afterwards he said he loved it and she told him it was a roller coaster.  His carefully considered, utterly adorable response was "So, if I liked this ride, and this ride is a roller coaster, then I must like roller coasters!" 

Bear was allowed to choose one midway game, and he decided on Whack-a-Mole.  Probably because it was the first thing he saw after exiting the Little Dipper.  DFA won and gave him the stuffed animal, whom he promptly dubbed Henry.

Bear and his "Afa."  Seriously, could we be any luckier to have this amazing woman in our life?

 Sidebar: You can see it in this photo, so I should mention it now... his velcro shoe ID tag doesn't work well with his sandals and I couldn't imagine going to a theme park without him wearing ID.  You can see the black strap on his right ankle - I bought a cheap velcro watch band and slipped the shoelace ID tag onto it. It's not a perfect solution (the watch band was too big), but it worked well enough to convince me it's worth the money to order a proper ankle ID bracelet.  He said it itched at first, but he got used to it very quickly.


The Whizzer is another kid friendly coaster, and Bear jumped at the suggestion to ride it next.

The Dude nommed on Henry while we waited for Bear, DFA and AGeekDad to ride The Whizzer.

It was getting late but Bear had seen the pirate ride on the website and he had not forgotten about it.  I took him on  Buccaneer Bay; this time I managed to get soaked shielding him from the cold, annoying water drips that hit you as the boat exits the building. He was predictably fascinated with the hand crank water cannons.

At this point Bear was so done he usurped The Dude's stroller.  We decided to indulge in a treat DFA had told us about before heading home.

Funnel.  Cake. Sundae.

The Dude alternated between doing a happy dance at being free from the stroller and trying to steal the food.  He was perfectly happy to give up his stroller seat to his big brother and enjoy DFA snuggles for the walk back to the car.

Tired Bear is tired.

We headed for home nearly 8 hours after we arrived.  I couldn't believe Bear had lasted so long. I know it was because we had DFA to help and I don't think we'll ever try the park without her.

In general I was happy that Bear had a good time, but annoyed that Autism Awareness Day didn't have a darn thing to do with it.  I feel like enticing spectrum families to go on a crowded Saturday is a bad idea, unless the "awareness" goal is to make park attendees aware of what parents struggling with an overloaded child looks like. If they really want to do us a solid then give us a discount good for any time so we can choose a quiet, low traffic day.

My best friend is always telling me that I have to stop holding others to my high standards for project and event planning, because I will always be disappointed.  This is one of those times.  I know I should be grateful that there is any collaboration at all to make ticket prices more affordable for families guaranteed to be struggling with treatment costs.  But I can't help feeling like it wasn't very well thought through and certainly not well executed.

Even something as basic as a sensory survival guide for visiting the park would have been incredibly helpful.  Information like "all the restrooms have automatic toilets and hand driers" can, for many of us, make or break the day. 

If the goal of this event is to provide an opportunity for spectrum families to do something special with our kids, then they've got a long way to go.  If the goal of this event is to pay lip service to awareness and to get some publicity photos for their marketing portfolio, then they're doing just fine.

Bottom line?  If they're not going to change anything about the actual park experience to genuinely make it more accessible for autistic guests, then I'd rather pay a higher ticket price and take Bear on a cooler day when the park isn't so crowded.