Something Amazing Happened at Disneyland.
(Note: This is not a sponsored post. I don’t get near enough traffic to attract Disney’s attention.)
In May, after our first three months of OT and PT with Stella, we splurged on a trip to Disneyland. We’d been worrying and agonizing about new realizations and a new path for Stella. We’d been working hard, with some really tough days, getting into a new rhythm with daily therapy at home. We needed to have some fun. We wanted to get away. We thought Stella deserved an enormous treat. So, shockingly, we did something about it. We up and went to Disneyland.
We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, with watersides and pools for Stella, and an enchanted tiki bar for us. An excellent choice. I shelled out a little extra for a room on one of the highest floors. I was not paying for fanciness. I was paying for pure elevation. During a wedding-related hotel stay a couple years prior in Minneapolis, we were perched in a room on the 20th floor or so. I was struck by how deeply Stella enjoyed sitting on the wide, welcoming window sill and gazing out at the city. Her eyes scanned and rested, scanned and rested, and she took it all in. She enjoyed telling us about everything going on below. The hustle and bustle could be comfortably observed from above. I wanted to give her that chance again, this time with a view of palm trees and pools and the hotel grounds. She loved the view, even laughing at kids’ funny antics in the pool way down below, and the ability to see and know what could be explored. A very sound investment, if you ask me.
We are probably one of the only families in Disneyland visitor history to actively avoid interactions with Disney characters. We saw people waiting in very long lines for a picture with Minnie. Yet, when she approached our table at Goofy’s Kitchen, dread engulfed our table and we were tempted to pull down the proverbial drapes and pretend we weren’t home. Stella wouldn’t look her way, but gave her a no-look high-five. I chatted with Minnie for a moment, exaggeratively extolling her virtues and pointing out how kind and gentle she was, then she was off to the next table, and we exhaled. I know that Stella loves Minnie, but it was too much to be on the spot and face to face. One day she’ll have the confidence to tell Santa what she wants for Christmas and perhaps interact with, or at least not be afraid of, Disney characters. She’ll do that when she is ready. She loved the parades and waved to all the characters–again, from a distance that felt manageable, from the point of view of a spectator.
There are a million anecdotes I could share, but what stands out most about the trip is one ride, and Stella’s dramatic response to it.
I didn’t expect Stella to like this ride, which involves wearing 3D glasses, spinning through space in a way that feels unpredictable, and shooting at constantly moving targets. Because it’s a total sensory bombardment, and because we (foolishly) attempted a 3D movie not long before, and she lasted 15 minutes before we just had to leave with a very distraught Stella. But she absolutely loved Midway Mania. And for her, it was vision therapy.
Why did this ride work for her? She was engaged and motivated. She loves Toy Story, she loved the “game” aspect of it, she loved seeing beloved characters who seemed to be responding to her and cheering her on, she loved feeling like she could do it herself and, I suppose, be instantly rewarded by congratulations from her favorite characters and video-game-esque sounds and scores.
After the initial shock wore off and we realized that, seemingly against all odds, she really loved this ride, we went on Midway Mania at least eight times. Which to us was a whole lot. I often had to carry her in line, but it didn’t matter. When she expressed interest in going on that ride, we made it happen. We were shocked that she could do it and wanted to do it. Not only that, but her scores improved with each successive ride. The mere fact that she could tolerate the glasses, see in 3D, and play this fast-moving interactive game at all was beyond highly encouraging, but we didn’t really let ourselves wonder what it meant for her vision. We were thrilled that she was having so much fun with it. We followed her lead.
Then, for one fabulous week after this vacation and its highly entertaining form of vision therapy, I saw (temporarily–again, just for one week) astounding residual effects. Not bad for a grand total of 50 minutes (maximum) spent on a ride. For example, Stella had previously avoided talking to our neighbors, almost completely. And we’ve lived here in this house and neighborhood for a year and a half. A day or two after our return from Disneyland, while standing in our backyard, she talked to our neighbor for about 45 minutes. On her own. Cody and I were inside, watching from the kitchen, incredulous, watching the clock and marveling at what was unfolding. Later, the neighbor told me that Stella filled her in about every aspect of Disneyland, what flowers we were growing in our yard, and more. The neighbor postponed dinner and hung in there with her for so long–they knew how big this conversation was. We all did. At school that week, Stella’s teacher remarked on how well-rested Stella seemed, how she was not getting frustrated like she used to. Her occupational therapist noticed (without our prompting or telling her about the ride or any changes we’d noticed) that Stella seemed more regulated, and more aware of and interested in people, noises, and activities around us. It’s not that Stella doesn’t notice anything usually. She does! She hears everything, for starters. But she just doesn’t always slow down, remark on, and engage us about them. She just seemed more in tune with a bigger share of the world around her.
As Stella’s developmental optometrist explained it amid a much longer and more helpful description, so much of Stella’s mental energy goes into a conscious effort to simply keep her eyes straight. Interpreting and reacting quickly and gracefully to the world around you–especially the unexpected–can be extraordinarily difficult when it takes a large share of your inner resources to simply “see!” We believe that for that brief window after Disneyland, this was no longer the case. When her eyes were better coordinated without requiring strenuous effort, her world opened up because she could relax and take it in. It was a truly beautiful sight, and I’d seen flickers of it before, when Stella did vision therapy two years ago.
And so, two weeks ago, Stella began vision therapy again. For months leading up to now, we’ve been focused on building the foundation upon which vision rests, and that includes basic motor skills, sensory integration, and postural and primitive and reflexes. That work is ongoing alongside vision therapy. Yes, another crazy ride. We’re working hard to give Stella a better view of the world, but it’s more than that. We’re working to empower her to comfortably and confidently engage with the world, and without the urgent need to keep so much of it at a safe distance.