Traveling with children of any age can sometimes be difficult, but traveling with children who have special needs can add additional challenges and frustrations. It can seem like an impossible task, but with a little planning, it can be done. It is simply a new challenge where the rewards are worth way more than the effort.
Communicate Early and Often
As you're planning travel, communicate your family’s needs to everyone involved and remind them as needed during your trip. Be prepared to explain WHY you need something extra beyond the regular allowances. If you are flying for vacation, explain to your travel advisor that you have a special needs child and need to be seated up front and near the bathrooms of the plane. When waiting for the flight to board, tell the agent at the gate that you need to be seated first because of your child’s disability. Once seated, inform all flight attendants on the plane about your child. The more they know, the better they can help, if needed.
Use Any Helpful Adaptive Aid
If you are on the fence about bringing that walker, wheelchair, or other aid on your trip, do it! It makes a world of difference in not only getting around, but it also serves as a recognizable symbol to others that there is a special need present. Also, make sure you look into all available services from the airport and airline ahead of time.
Call the Airline’s Disability Assistance Line
The airline disability assistance lines are a great resource for information. However, keep in mind they do not seem to communicate with anyone outside of their team with any consistency. Rather, they just tell you how things should work when you travel. This can almost give a false sense that things will go smoothly, when it really all depends on the airline employees you are dealing with at the time.
Lean on TSA Cares
If you have concerns with TSA, they have a program called TSA Cares. You can find out more on the TSA website.
Considering a road trip?
Stop for a few minutes every hour or two to stretch, whether your son or daughter uses a wheelchair, braces, or needs a breather to take medications or go to the restroom. Plan your seating strategy. Try out a variety of sitting positions. Does your child need an extra cushion, lumbar pillow, or blankets to stay comfortable? Did you pack a water bottle or juice if anyone gets thirsty or needs medications on the road? Keep snacks handy in the car that don’t go bad like dried fruit, raisins, nuts, pretzels, or beef jerky. Make sure your child’s adaptive equipment, like the wheelchair lift, all the lock downs, and straps work before the road trip.
Be strategic in choosing your lodging.
Look for nearby restaurants and check for nearby markets and pharmacies. If your child has food allergies or other issues, you want to make sure you know where to get it.
Research local hospitals or medical centers in your destination. Know where you will go in case of an emergency. Call your medical insurance company and find out if they take your insurance. Ask your insurance company what the procedure is should something happen while you are away. Ask them to put a note in your file regarding where you will be and the dates. Find out also if they will require referrals.
Decide how much activity your child can handle.
It’s natural to want to see and do it all in the time you have, but that’s no reason to cram a lifetime into one trip. Schedule rest periods that allow time for relaxation or a nap. Plan short, quality activities to meet the needs your child has. Time with headphones or a book can be a plus. If you realize it’s impossible to return to your hotel at regular intervals, at least allow time to sit down in a quiet place. Make your first day a short one, too. Falling out of the car or off the plane and bounding into vacation activities is never a good idea for anybody. Intentionally go to your room to rest, read, or watch TV together and talk as a family about tomorrow’s adventures. Get a meal, then take in a show later on in the day or some other event that’s low-key or will wear out your hyperactive child just enough to get them to sleep before going out tomorrow.
Theme Parks Large tourist attractions are usually able to accommodate various disability needs. Even if you never use a wheelchair in your daily life with your child, consider renting a wheelchair or scooter at theme parks, unless your child can handle walking for miles and standing for hours without pain. At most parks, if your child is in a wheelchair, you can go right in without waiting in line. Some zoos have wheelchairs and scooters to rent for the day, but make sure you call first. This will allow your family to do a lot more for a longer period and expend less energy.
A few weeks before your trip, request a letter from the doctor with your child’s diagnoses and medication information. Bring their medical records if your child is medically complex and you need more than the letter. If your child takes medication, make sure you bring enough to last you the whole trip and a little beyond. Ask the doctor for supplement recommendations if your child suffers from anxiety or motion sickness.
Let your child know what you expect from them.
Prepare a story on what to expect while traveling on an airplane. Include all the things you know you will encounter on your trip, like immigration services, waiting, running into people from different cultures, etc. Discuss using the bathroom in an airport and on an airplane, having to stay close to mom and dad, and having calm bodies and voices while they are in those situations.
Keep the daily routine as much as possible.
Sleeping and eating schedules should follow your child's normal routine. If you have to be in your hotel room at a certain time of day, so be it. As much as possible, travel in the off-season or at less crowded times. Most kids don't do well in big crowds or while waiting in line.
Remember the typical age-appropriate behavior for your child. All kids get tired and cranky, especially when parents push them past their normal limits. Typical children have meltdowns and tantrums when they do too much, so don’t expect any less from your child with disabilities.
Relax and enjoy!
Know that you have prepared for the worst and expect the best. You’ve done all you can, so relax and enjoy your vacation. Plan at least one day of rest after returning home from vacation, too. Sometimes you don’t know how tired you really are until you get up the next day for work or school, and you wish you could take a vacation due to exhaustion from your vacation. That’s no way to do it, so remember to include at least one day home rest after vacation before returning to the daily grind.
Traveling with a special needs child can be done and the entire family can have fun. But just like your child needs accommodations to get through day-to-day life and school at home, they may need accommodations when traveling. The key is just to be prepared.