Five-year-old autistic boy develops communication skills with help from Disney characters

Five-year-old Evan McLeod is autistic and was born with microcephaly and global development delays, but he doesn’t let that stop him from living life to the fullest. On the contrary, before the pandemic hit, he and his mom Eeka would take weekly trips to Disneyland, which he loves to dress up for.

The weekly McLeod family trips to Disneyland aren’t just for the kids’ amusement. According to Eeka, these trips have helped her three adopted kids with disabilities— 6-year-old Eli, 5-year-old Evan and 3-year-old Ella — develop their communication skills (and of course, have oodles of fun in the process).

“Evan’s speech is a major struggle. He didn’t speak until he was well into his 3rd year,” Eeka explained to In The Know. “His motivation to speak came from our weekly Disneyland days. He wanted to be able to tell me what toys he wanted me to buy, what rides he wanted to go on, what characters he wanted to see and what treats he wanted to eat.”

Before Evan could talk, Eeka said that he would mimic the body language that some of the characters at the park used to communicate with his mom. Today, when Eeka doesn’t understand what her son is asking for, she’ll “ask him to show me and most of the time he’s able to.” She largely credits Disneyland — and the wonderful character actors who work there — for that.

The Disneyland cast members are especially patient with Evan. Since Eeka’s been taking her family to the parks for years, many of them know Evan and know how to properly engage him when he’s feeling overstimulated.

Recently, one of Evan’s touching interactions with Disney princess Ariel went viral on TikTok with 11.5 million views and 3.3 million likes. In the video, Evan is overstimulated and overwhelmed, but Ariel — who is aware that Evan is autistic — successfully re-captures his attention and enlivens him, staying in character all the while.

“Ariel was fantastic!” Eeka said about the moment captured in the TikTok video. “She continued to engage Evan to ensure his moment with her was as magical as possible. I don’t think the men and women in those costumes know how much those moments mean to me as his mother. The [cast members] don’t just make Evan feel accepted and loved; they make me feel that way as well.”

“Not everyone understands children like Evan and as a mother that is so heartbreaking,” she continued. “Kids used to run away from him at playgrounds and call him weird. Those moments shattered me. But at Disney he’s just another happy child where he’s shown nothing but genuine kindness.”

At Disneyland, Evan is also free to wear whatever he wants without judgment. When he was 3 years old, he expressed to his mother — through “body language and a LOT of whining” — that he wanted to wear dresses, and his mom has been supportive ever since.

“He has told me he’s a girl, but also tells me he’s a boy,” Eeka explained. “He likes boy stuff such as Spider-Man, but sadly there aren’t a lot of dresses for male characters. […] Any time he tells me he’s a boy or girl, I just smile and say OK and tell him that I love him always.”

If you enjoyed this story, check out this 19-year-old’s inspiring TikToks that are breaking down autism stereotypes.

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