Traveling with special needs kids just requires a little more planning. Don’t be afraid, be adventurous and include your children in some of the planning. Often when children are involved, it is more comforting and less stressful when it comes to changes in schedules and locations.
Undoubtedly you will run into people who do not understand your children or their behaviors. Be prepared to openly talk about your child’s needs or diagnosis. Be specific in communicating your child’s needs while trying to be as polite and diplomatic as possible. Making reservations or calling ahead to inquire about accessibility, allergies or employee interactions can help with preparations and reduce stress.
Leading up to Travel Day:
Children like schedules (whether they agree or not) and preparing them for a change in their daily activities through clear communication and easy to understand steps can make for a great transition. Make a countdown calendar and have your child help you with small tasks each day, based on their abilities. Tasks like assembling medications, preparing a first-aid package, packing the travel bags, laying out clothes, and putting a snack bag together are great examples of tasks that can be easily “checked-off” each day.
What to Bring:
Give each child a backpack or bag of their own. Work with them to include favorite books, drawing/coloring materials, play toys and snacks. This will give them some comforts from home on the airplane or in the car. Once you’ve finished packing, close the bag up in front of the child. As an extra special surprise, add a couple of new toys, books or supplies to the bag for the child to discover once travel has begun.
Prepare your own travel bag. Include medications, first aid kit, wipes, extra change of clothes for each child and a couple of plastic bags. The plastic bags can useful for garbage, dirty clothes, etc.
Foods and Snacks:
Bring your own snack or food bag. Try to pack familiar items that do not require refrigeration. Food can be comforting but it can also help avoid potential hunger pangs or accidental allergic reactions. If you are traveling for multiple days, planning your food stops can be helpful. Many chain restaurants have mobile apps to find their locations. We used our lunch stop as a playground stop as well which helped get a good stretch in and use up some extra energy to get ready for an afternoon nap.
Medications and Special Needs Equipment:
Get in touch with your healthcare provider and your doctor to ensure that you have enough medication for the trip. Your healthcare provider can also help you understand what to do if you go out of state or out of country. Check for emergency medical assistance both along the travel route and at your destination. If you are prepared and knowledgeable, better decisions can be made if needed. Remember, as the saying goes, “if you are prepared, you won’t need it”.
If your child requires special equipment or tools, be sure that they are inspected, repaired, or cleaned and ready for travel. If the item can break or cease working unexpectedly, do some research about how or where the item can be fixed or replaced.
If you have a child with noise sensitivity, don’t forget the headphones. Reducing the possibilities of episodes can lead to more enjoyment while you are away.
Travel by Airplane:
If you are flying, ask the gate agent to pre-board in order to avoid the crowded boarding and give you extra time to get settled. Check the TSA guidelines regarding medications and medical equipment.
Wings for Autism is a program developed by The ARC to rehearse airport travel. It is growing across the US, but you can also contact your local airport management to see if they have a program as well. The program was originally designed to help students with Autism go through the steps of airport travel without the stress of needing to depart. Airports have noise, crowds and security checks, all of which can set off children with special needs. You do not need to prove or show why you would like to go through an airport rehearsal, so this can be helpful to children that aren’t necessarily on the Autism spectrum.
For accommodations, consider a small apartment or cabin instead of a hotel room as this may be more comforting and also allow for special meal preparation. The extra cost of the accommodations may offset with restaurant costs and other restaurant difficulties including crowds, waiting for unfamiliar foods in unfamiliar environments. Don’t forget to bring a nightlight or white noise machine to alleviate anxiety.
Pack a handful of pipe cleaners for temporary cupboard locks. At your home, your children are familiar with which cupboards are safe. In foreign environments, it is easier to “lock” the unsafe items with visible “do not touch” tags.
Identify a quiet and safe place for retreat both at your accommodations and at your daily activity locations.
Be sure to schedule time to meet the sensory needs of children such as the need to run, swim, or swing. By allowing children the ability to exercise this can help to release their energy and regulate their nervous system.
Try to maintain a schedule similar to the child’s home life including wake up times, nap times, feeding times and bed times. The more regulated the schedule, the calmer and less anxious the child is likely to become as they are prepared for the next activity. Providing the child with a daily schedule will allow the child to understand and be prepared and therefore less stressed.
You need to find a balance between maintaining a schedule and allowing for flexibility. Be prepared to change activities or plans based on behavior or unexpected crowds.
Try to take time for yourself such as taking a walk or relaxing bath. It is your vacation too. Children can sense stress and often play off the tone of their parents. A relaxed parent can lead to a relaxed and successful vacation.
Use these tips to enjoy your next “adventure” with your children.