Unlike many other amusement parks, Disneyland is perhaps the best place to go with your family, even if your child has Autism. Sure, there are crowds, and sure, there are long lines, but for the most part Disney tries to make it as easy as possible for everyone. But it's not perfect (like everything in this world), so let me give you a heads up on some of the experiences we had.
First, the Not So Good
World of Color: Disney has a new attraction, the World of Color. It's essentially Fantasmic without Mickey and the Dragon, or any other performers. They do a water display at night and project scenes from movies while shooting colored lights through the water jets. It's really cool, but unlike Fantasmic where you can sit down, everyone is standing. When we went it was an hour's wait after getting a fast pass just to get placed, and then another half an hour until it started. Both my kids were getting bored, and then it started. My son with Autism was good with the loud music for about 20 minutes, but the display went on for 45 minutes. It was just too much for him and we ended up leaving it early. It wasn't bad, nor would I discourage anyone from seeing it, unless you have a little one that can't take the wait.
Fantasmic: We didn't get to see it this year, but then we didn't want to overwhelm our little ones. It's a great performance with both light and characters, but it can be a little long if you are not prepared. For our child with Autism, we often pull out the iPhone or iPods and let him focus on that instead of what is around him. As long as he has something to focus on, he's good. If you are sitting, and you are encouraged to sit for the performance, then it makes it easier to manage meltdowns. I would recommend getting there at least an hour to an hour and a half early, sit at the restaurant there and eat while you are waiting. It makes it that much more manageable.
First and foremost it is best if you get a Guest Assistance pass. This pass is available for anyone who has a hard time waiting in line. I'm not talking about children who are just unruly, but children who are incapable of waiting in a long, crowded line. Maybe they have Autism, or maybe they are claustrophobic, it works for them. Have a physical disability? It's there for you (and a number of other passes). Also, for any person bound to a wheelchair, more rides are being fitted for wheelchairs, including Monster's Inc, It's A Small World, and the Toy Story Mania ride (if I remember right). Expect more, similar rides to have a special car just for wheelchairs.
The Guest Assistance pass acts as a Fast Pass for any ride that has one, and for those that don't (Pirates, Small World, and Finding Nemo are examples) you enter through either the Exit or designated Assistance lines. If you are unsure of where to go, ask any employee you see. If they don't know, they know who to ask.
If you do get the pass, which is good for 5 guests, please don't abuse it. If the line isn't too long, stay in line with everyone else. If it is very long, take one ride and then move on to another. Don't keep riding in front of all the other people who are waiting, because it breeds resentment, and that's one thing no one want's at an amusement park (least of all at Disneyland). Be respectful of others when using your pass. Also, the pass doesn't guarantee instant access, and you may still need to wait. On New Year's Eve it was packed, and even the Assistance entrance had a long wait. Just move on to another ride or experience.
Also, I would highly recommend the Crush Experience in California Adventures, which is awesome and children with Autism adore. So much in fact that they tend to start talking after the event, a lot more than what is typical. I can also recommend the Muppet Vision 3-D show, even without the glasses (they tend to give me a headache). And a Bugs World is fun, along with any of the other rides there. The Ferris Wheel may be a bit much for children with height issues, as can be Soarin' over California. But other than those, the rides in California Adventures tends toward fun, as will the two new rides slated to open in 2011. ^_^
So, which rides can I recommend? It really depends on the likes and dislikes of your child, but here are the rides and experiences we tended to frequent:
Finding Nemo: Both my boys loved this ride, and we ended up going every day, once a day. I even took a recording of the ride, and though it's a little dark (no flash photography allowed, right?), my sons still watch it, riveted to their seats. If you are claustrophobic it may not be the ride for you, but it is fun. If it's too much for your child, you can get off before you start. You may want to first try out the ride by watching a YouTube video of it with your child, and see how they react.
Haunted Mansion: My kids make me so proud, they both love the Nightmare Before Christmas, and as a consequence of that they like the Haunted Mansion. So much so that we ended up taking the ride every day, once a day. Even packed this ride moves quickly, making it a very popular ride. If your child has terror issues, this may not be the ride for them. Try it out first by watching it on YouTube, just to see how they handle it. And keep in mind that it changes based on the season. If your child or children cannot handle the typical ride but don't mind Nightmare Before Christmas, then you may want to plan a trip first during the Holidays, and then they should be good for the regular ride as well.
Pirates of the Caribbean: My youngest has height issues, and didn't like the initial falls in this ride, but after that loved it. So much so that we went back for each day we there there, and twice on New Year's Day morning (best time to be in Disneyland, I might add! Completely dead!). It's not scary, and they enjoyed the relaxing boat rides. But then both my children love water, so being on the boat was exciting enough. Again, you may want to try out the ride on your child through YouTube.
Oh, and it is a boat ride, so there is a very good chance your seats will be wet. So, unlike the jerks that rode behind us one night, don't complain and stand up in the boat. If you don't want to get wet, don't ride. If you are going to be a jerk about it to the employees and everyone else on the ride, do us all and yourself a favor don't come to Disneyland.
It's A Small World/Storybook Land/Jungle Cruise: These rides are all boat rides, so my kids loved them. They also have placements of Disney characters throughout It's a Small World, making it a great ride for children that adore scavenger hunts. See who can point out the most Disney characters, and name which films they are in. And for the Holidays, I was surprised to see a Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia) figure, which was awesome. Both Storybook Land and the Jungle Cruise are perhaps the most relaxing of all the rides, and were just a blast. These rides are great for kids of all ages, because there is nothing even remotely scary about them.
Fantasyland Rides: All the rides in Fantasyland were favorites of both my kids, as they are geared to little ones. The dark rides are not too scary, and they were fun. Both my kids liked the Teacups, which is beyond me as they have not been my favorite. They must have gotten that from their mother. I would recommend them all.
Tomorrowland: All these rides were fun and exciting for my kids, with the exception of Space Mountain. Not that it scared my oldest (the youngest is still too small to ride), but it wasn't a favorite of his. All the other rides they love, and had a blast in Inoventions. It's a great place to relax while one or the other is taking a nap on your shoulder and you need to sit down.
Adventureland: The surprise here was Tarzan's Treehouse. Both my kids loved this one. It was quiet, an easy stair climb, and gave them plenty to focus on. You also get a great view of Thunder Mountain from the top.
Frontierland: The many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh ride was a favorite, as was waiting in line for Pooh and friends. Occasionally you would see Briar Bear and Briar Fox, but the kids just don't know who they are as Song of the South has not been released. We didn't go on either the Steamboat or the Galleon, nor did we try the canoes. My oldest didn't like Splash Mountain, mostly because of the drop at the end (he loved it all up until that point).
Toon Town: This was great, and if definitely helps if you have the early Toon Town with Mickey voucher, meaning you can get in at 8:00 AM before it opens at 9:00 AM. You can ride Gadget's roller coaster (the youngest just barely made it for this one!), Roger Rabbit's ride, and you get to see a presentation with the Mayor, Mickey. Once done, you get special photos in Mickey's house with the Mayor. My oldest didn't really like this, because Mickey wasn't in the Movie Barn like all the other times. But while everyone else was at the presentation, we got to go through the character's houses with no one else there, which both sons enjoyed.
So, if you got this far, you are probably thinking "Gee, what's so special about this? My kids like/don't like those rides too." Well, yeah, children with Autism are, first and foremost, children. They like all the same things that other children like, they just don't like over stimulation, extensive waiting, and having to leave a ride they enjoy. Children with Autism are just more intense about the emotions, and more likely to be overwhelmed by multiple stimuli. But all in all, Disneyland can be a great trip suggestion for any child with Autism.