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Smooth Sailing through a Life Vest Drill with an Autistic Child

Life vest drill? Standing in a line for a period of time? Being still? Standing close to others? No vocalizations? Wearing a life vest? Loud noises? Yikes! Can we skip this?

All folks must attend the life vest drill on any ship and there are no exceptions, even with Disney Cruise Line, it's mandatory.

Now, how to cope through this with an autistic child? Well, here's what I did and it started from home, months ahead. I began with pictures and story books of anything that dealt with ships or boats, downloaded pictures of life vests into my PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and started cranking out the mini photo cards. Then cutting out the pictures, laminating them and attaching the velcro tabs to the back and I also got the PEC board ready, the travel sized one that I used to carry around with me in my purse to use just about anywhere in order to prepare my son for what he would encounter with minimal tantrums or  'situations'...

This is the travel sized PECS board with all of what's going to happen throughout the day. As you complete the task/event you peel off the mini PECS tab. I was the velcro queen at one point.

I also carried an, 'I want' board with his favorite items or activities to use as a reward system for completing a task successfully.
So on went the pictures of the life vests, pictures of ship corridors and stairwells and even a picture of the deck where we had to stand and even pictures of how people were lined up. Don't ask me how I did that back in 2005, but the people at Disney Cruise Line were very helpful when I called and did their best to send me pictures of most everything of the Disney Wonder that they could, without infringing copyrights. It was very challenging for them and me, but together we did it. I was so grateful.
Now for the task of getting the life vest over his head, let alone keeping it on. I began with placing it in the same room that he was in, and that was anywhere in the house. This went on for six months by the way. After placing the life vest in the same room, I would make mention of it or pick it up in front of him and then put it down. I would then reward my son for tolerating it with an item or preferred, tiny snack. We then moved from tolerating it in the same space to placing it closer to my son and rewarding him for tolerating its proximity, that went on for one month....daily...multiple times daily.
From there, he was rewarded for even touching it. Rewarding is a great tool because you're pairing good things with the task or behaviour you need to be established.
Then came the day when me, my husband and daughter would wear life vests around the house while my son watched. He was rewarded for looking at us without freaking out. He was rewarded for allowing us to sit near him without freaking out. He was rewarded when his life vest was place near him without freaking out.
It was time to go to the marina. I had chartered a small boat for a week (could have bought a hell of a purse for that money) in order to practise wearing life vests. We were not sailing anywhere until all of the life vests were on. The motivation here was that my son loves anything that moves. The motivator was the boat. If you want to move in this thing, then you have to wear the life vest....period.  That took two full days....four hours each day. I was exhausted but we were making progress. I did not give up. At least dinner was out for that week (another set of PECS there).
As the cruise approached, I was constantly flipping through our Disney Wonder picture album showing him what he was to expect and familiarizing him with the PECS associated with that ship. Right from leaving the resort, to on the Disney motor coach, to the port....everything. Then, I established a PECS board for the chain of events for the drill, right from getting on the ship, going for lunch, then back to the stateroom, restroom break, putting on the life vest and heading up to our drill station....and back. Oh yeah....all for one event.

We had success and he's even smiling!

Boarding, he's ahead of us, that's a good thing.
On the Gangway, the trepidation on his face is apparent.
On one of our many life vest drill acclimatization walks.
Andrew loves sitting in the large porthole windows, thank you DCL.
Motion from a hammock means peace for me.
Hurry up, take your picture because I want lunch. I replied, "first picture, then food."
We are now looking forward to our eighth cruise with Disney! The life vest drills are easy at this point, but imagine his surprise when last year during the beginning of our double dip cruise on the Disney Dream being told that we did not need life vests anymore. That was a new set of PECS boards for me. It didn't work, so Andrew now is the only one WITH a life vest at the drill now, the new kettle of fish, is building thick skin for all the comments you get from dozens of people and their opinions.
Oh well, at least we're 'freak out' free, maybe a little weird, but we're happy!


  1. Loved this Jackie and your photos are great! Your kids look so young to :-) Keep up the great work!


    1. Thank you Suzanne, it brought back so many memories, now I really miss my daughter. xo


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