A couple say visiting Disney World helps unlock their autistic son's closed world

Linda Shrieves | Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
May 4, 2008

When Sara Miles tells people that she moved from Seattle to Orlando so her son could be close to Disney World, she knows what they're thinking.

That she's crazy.

But most people don't understand what it's like to have an autistic child -- to watch a talking toddler lose his speech and melt into a quiet world that no one else can enter. Most people don't know what it's like to see the doors to all your dreams slam shut.

So when Sara and her ex-husband brought their autistic son, Ben, to Disney World for the first time back in 2002, they were astounded. The boy who threw temper tantrums at the grocery store suddenly seemed quiet, patient and observant. The boy who rarely talked began naming the rides they had been on.

It was the first time that Ben had spoken words that his parents, teachers and speech therapists hadn't coaxed out of him.

"As soon as he set foot in the Magic Kingdom it was like someone turning on a light switch," says Ben's father, Ron Miles. "I know it sounds crazy to move across the country for this, but if it's the key that unlocks his potential, it's worth it."

For five years, Ben, now 14, has been a fixture at the Magic Kingdom. On weekends and school holidays, he can often be found zipping through the crowds at Fantasyland to get to his favorite place: Snow White's Scary Adventures.

Of all the rides at the Magic Kingdom, the Snow White ride captivates Ben the most. He has ridden it 2,084 times -- so many times that the cast members once took photos inside the ride and gave Ben a photo album when the ride temporarily shut down for renovations.

And when Disney cast members learned that Ben was approaching his 2,000th ride last month, they arranged for him to meet Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an event that included a kiss from Snow White.

Ben's parents aren't entirely sure why Ben loves the Snow White ride so much.

That's one of the many puzzling pieces of autism. Parents don't know why their child becomes attached to a particular toy or activity.

Yet, as the number of children diagnosed with autism grows, researchers are focusing more attention on this complex developmental disability. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one out of every 160 children has autism and more than 25,000 U.S. children will be diagnosed with autism this year.

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While autistic children and their abilities vary widely, there are some common traits. For instance, autistic children often develop a fixation on one topic or one interest -- and researchers have discovered autistic kids frequently obsess about animated characters. "Thomas the Tank Engine is a big show for kids on the autism spectrum," says Dr. Richmond Mancil, an associate education professor and autism specialist at the University of Central Florida. "These kids don't really have an interest in trains. They don't care about trains, but if it's Thomas, they're interested."

While other autistic kids became focused on things such as Legos and World War II tanks, Ben zeroed in on Disney movies.

Fantasia. Snow White. Beauty and the Beast.

By age 4, he knew how to operate the rewind and forward button on the VCR. He wore out videotapes, listening to sections of movies over and over, especially the section of Snow White in which the evil queen turns into a hag.

By the time Ben was 8, Sara and Ron -- by then divorced, but sharing custody -- decided to take Ben to Disney World. Privately, Sara worried that the vacation might end like most trips to the grocery store: with Ben screaming and crying and Sara uncertain what had set him off.

But when they walked into the Magic Kingdom, Ben's face spread into a huge grin. Then he ran up Main Street, through a sea of tourists, and headed straight for Cinderella Castle.

What astounded Ron and Sara, however, was Ben's speech.

To their surprise, Ben, who rarely spoke, began naming the rides. "The Haunted Mansion," "Snow White," "Pooh."

His behavior was strikingly different, too. He waited patiently in long lines. He was calm and happy. "We had never seen him like that out in public -- not ever," says Sara.

After the trip, Sara and Ron Miles decided that if Ben, their only child, needed to be near Disney World, they would pack up and move. As a teacher, Sara could relocate. Ron's a software developer, so his employer agreed to let him try working remotely from Florida.


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