The story of how Disney has changed Tommy’s life is long and heartwarming. The following is just a small part of that story.
From the time Tommy was a baby, Disney movies were playing on the VCR in his home, because his big brother Paul was two years older and already loved Disney movies. Before he was even a year of age, Tommy would watch Disney movies, showing incredible engagement and excitement at the stories, laughing at the funny parts, and running from the room when villains filled the screen.
Although Tommy was an very happy baby, he soon became very difficult to manage- walking at only eight months old, completely oblivious to anyone talking to him, or trying to intervene when he climbed to heights or put himself in danger. Disney movies always held his attention, keeping him happy and busy for a period of time.
When Tommy was diagnosed with autism at age 2 1/2, his parents told the Children’s Hospital that Disney movies were an incredible part of his life, and that while watching these movies he was more engaged than at other times. Professionals warned them against allowing Tommy to watch the movies, advising that the movie should be turned off in favor of trying to get Tommy to engage more, face to face, with people around him than with the television screen.
Tommy’s parents could clearly see that Disney movies were very meaningful to Tommy, and couldn’t imagine Tommy losing his stories, and the characters he already loved dearly, by taking away his movies. Ignoring the advice of the professionals, Tommy’s parents not only provided him unlimited access to his movies, but continued to expand his movie library in an effort to enrich his life and provide him with more stories and enjoyment. The smile on Tommy’s face, and the twinkle in his eye was their guide.
Still, Tommy remained nonverbal and didn’t respond to language or attempts to engage him from both therapists and family members. This remained a huge concern. But his enjoyment of the movies continued. He was intrigued by the scene where Bambi learns to say words, encouraged by Flower, and watched with great enthusiasm. A similar scene in an animated version of Charlotte’s Web (not Disney, but one of Tommy’s other favourites), where Wilbur sings “I Can Talk”, made Tommy leap and dance with glee, as though he could relate! Tommy’s reactions to the stories in his favorite movies was encouraging indeed!
In addition to the Disney movies being important to Tommy, he loved Disney books and spent a long time staring at certain pictures, in particular pictures of Kaa the snake hypnotizing Mowgli. Part of Tommy’s Autism was that he sought deep pressure, and he seemed to really like the scene where Mowgli was wrapped in Kaa’s coils and being squeezed.
On Tommy’s 3rd birthday, his mother was desperate to have him understand that it was his birthday, so she had a really specific Disney cake made just for him. The picture on the cake was a replica of a picture he often stared at in one of his Disney books- the scene of Mowgli being hypnotized by Kaa. This attempt to make Tommy understand that this particular birthday cake was all for him worked! Tommy saw the cake and was delighted! When it came time to open gifts, Tommy received a small plush toy Iago – the parrot from Aladdin. In a breakthrough moment, Tommy took Iago and put him on his shoulder, imitating Jafar, the villain. It was a moment of surprise and joy for Tommy’s family, showing them that not only was he watching the movies, but that he understood and connected with the characters, and he could engage in imitation and make-believe play, using Iago as his prop. It gave them so much hope!
Tommy’s family purchased more and more Disney toys, plastic figurines, puppets, plush toys, books, games, puzzles, and, of course, more Disney movies. In a concerted effort to engage Tommy in different ways, and expand his play repertoire (and hopefully his language), they provided him with all the materials and resources possible, and Tommy continued to show more and more engagement, symbolic play, and make-believe. Watching the Disney movies was also an activity Tommy was able to share with other family members. He loved to have his parents, brother Paul, or his Grandma May watch with him. (Grandma May spent a lot of time with Tommy throughout his childhood, and they shared lots of story time and special moments together.) The Disney movies were always a positive way for Tommy to spend time when the rest of the world seemed chaotic and confusing to him, when outings were difficult for him, and when his hyperactivity would otherwise lead to unsafe activity and difficult moments. The Disney movies were an oasis of joy and calm.
Still, Tommy’s speech did not develop as hoped, other than a few very infrequent, often hard to understand verbalizations. Tommy loved trains, and would say “toot” like a train. He would say “whee” when going down slides, he would say “Oh oh!” when something fell and broke. He sometimes said “go”, he sometimes said bye-bye which he pronounced “dye dye”. Much of his babbling was simply unrecognizable as words to others (we now know that dyspraxia, or motor planning issues, were affecting his ability to produce words). He often uttered sounds that we could not decipher (ka, oy kee ka, was a common one!). But he seemed truly unable to understand speech from others, or make connections, such as that characters and people had names, that objects important to him had names. He didn’t use language to ask for things or name things. Professionals began to tell his parents that he would likely never become verbal.
When Tommy was five, his parents had accessed all possible services in Ontario. Tommy remained unreachable through language, it seemed, and local therapists, as wonderful as they were, remained for the most part unable to help. Tommy’s grandmother, Nana Margaret, strongly urged Tommy’s parents to take him to California to seek ABA therapy, which was not available in Ontario at that time. It was quite an undertaking- taking Tommy on a plane at a time when his behaviour was so unpredictable, and coping with the new routine and location. And although Tommy made progress, and his family learned a lot of new, positive ways to help Tommy learn, even the ABA therapists felt that Tommy’s ability to verbalize was blocked in some way, and that speech was still unlikely due to his dyspraxia.
Tommy went to Disneyland at the age of 5, while in California having ABA therapy for his Autism. Overwhelmed by the crowds and excitement, he was unable to cope and stayed only a couple of hours. His family had to leave by 11 am, due to him running through the crowds, melting down, and being very unsafe (Tommy did not yet have his guide dog for safety). The disappointment was enormous, because we had imagined that he would love it there. Tommy’s brother Paul (age 7 then) and mom returned for the evening, to use the passes, while Tommy and Peter remained at the hotel. Despite having great fun riding the rides and watching the fireworks, Paul expressed a deep sadness that Tommy had missed seeing all the magical things. (separating as a family, with one parent staying with Tommy while the other enjoyed outings with Paul, had become a way of life, and would remain that way for years to come.) We hoped Tommy would return someday to visit his beloved Disney characters, but had no idea when, if ever, he might be ready.
At the age of 5 and 6, Tommy began to type and read simple words, and as he approached the age of 7 began to say more and more single words, all of which he could already read and type on programs like Kidworks on the computer. The written word was becoming his doorway to speech.
Another breakthrough moment happened the day Tommy received his first Disney movie on DVD, The Jungle Book, when he was 9 years old, in 2000. Tommy discovered the subtitles on his own. He came running to get his mom, brought her to the computer screen, where he had paused the movie on the scene where Bagheera says to Kaa “Kaa! Hold it, Kaa!” He said “ka oy kee ka” (sounds he had said, and laughed about, repeatedly, for years) and had his mom read the words aloud. And then he said “Kaa! Hold it Kaa!!!” clearly, for the very first time, ever. The written words of the subtitle supported his speech. From that moment on, his parents ensured he always had the closed captioning or subtitles turned on his movies. They bought a new tv that was closed caption capable so all his old VHS Disney movies would have captions! What a joy is was to see Tommy’s language gradually improve more and more with this new tool!
The stories provided by the Disney movies inspired Tommy’s imagination, and he began writing his own stories by about age 9, despite being unable yet to talk in sentences. Over the years, he dictated or typed (using a pencil to write was very difficult for Tommy) and others scribed his stories for him, filling hundreds of story binders! Tommy dreams of making animated movies someday of his stories!
Tommy’s first trip to Disney World was in March 2009 when he was 17. He was so thrilled to meet and chat with all the characters, and everyone was so kind to Tommy. On his second trip, in 2010, he surprised everyone when he proposed to Anastasia! When she later gave him a big kiss at the parade, it was a very magical moment! Every time Tommy goes to Disney, magical things happen to him! In 2012, he danced with three princesses to the song “So This is Love”. The YouTube video below tells the tale 🙂
Disney enthusiasts worldwide, especially those he meets at Disney World on his regular trips there, share a special camaraderie with Tommy, and appreciate sharing his joy and encyclopedic knowledge of all things Disney! We are thankful to everyone who has made Tommy’s trips to Disney World so magical 🙂
At first, we thought we would visit Disney once, maybe twice. But then we realized it was more than a holiday. Disney World is like a second home to Tommy. Each time Tommy has returned, the bonds he shares with the characters and cast members has grown stronger, and more magical. The warm gratitude we feel to the many people who made Tommy’s visits so amazing, well it’s just hard to explain.
Thank you, thank you.
The Disney characters were Tommy’s childhood friends and best companions. For them to truly come alive right before our eyes, and embrace him wholeheartedly, well it just brings indescribable joy.
It’s been a very long journey, and having Tommy actually reach the point in his life where he can travel to Disney with confidence and composure, talk to his favorite characters, and even complete a half marathon with outstanding results, well it just brings tears to our eyes.
Check out his YouTube channel “lookyus” to see many more videos of Tommy at Disney World!
Tommy had his first visit to Disneyland as an adult, after training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. Check his YouTube channel for videos! 🙂