Travelling with a Special Needs Child: Part 3

by Emma Hackwood


After sharing her tips on travelling with a special needs child, and covering off how to prep for the trip, Jennifer MacDonald finishes her series off with advice on how to relax with all these responsibilities and enjoy each day as it comes:

Long car rides can be tough for kids in general but can be especially challenging for kids with special needs. They often don’t realize that just because we’ve stopped doesn’t mean we’re there. When we’re travelling long distance in the car we try not to make too many stops because it’s just confusing. While not necessary now, when she was younger we would plan car trips for night time or nap time.  We bring food with us to eat on the run as well as toys, books, and the ever present iPod and DVD player.

When we do need to stop for food or washroom breaks we try and either keep her in the car or use visual pictures so she understands that this is just a quick stop (First washroom, Then back in car).  We’ve found that if we give her room to stretch her legs and run off some steam it makes it harder for her to settle back into the rhythm of the car ride.

Her ability to sit in the car for hours at a time has prepared her very well for plane travel.  However, if you have a child who *needs* to be able to get up and run around every few hours, a plane ride can be torturous.

Planes are crowded and noisy.  For a sensory defensive child it’s a very difficult place to be.  I always ensure that I reserve a window seat and middle seat for me and my daughter.  With her by the window I’m able to control the situation a little better and to insulate her a bit from the rest of the airplane (and them from her).  When travelling with my partner and son I always put us in 2×2 seats one behind the other.  That way we each can focus on the needs of 1 child and we can pass things back and forth.

Like in the restaurant, we use the headphones and iPod/DVD player to help combat the sensory overload.  Some children actually find the noise of the plane soothing, it’s almost like static or white noise.  If your child isn’t one of those, you can also use noise cancelling headphones to block the sounds.  If your child has never worn headphones before you’ll want to try them ahead of time.  Sitting on the runway about to take off is not the time to find out your child won’t tolerate headphones.

Like car travel, we make sure we have food and drinks as well as games and books that will keep her attention.  We also refer back to the booklet we made to remind her of what is happening and what to expect when she gets off the plane.

Some children have a lot of issues with the change of air pressure.  I try to make sure to have lollipops or drinks to help keep ears clear.  Gum, hard candies and other foods that make you swallow also work.

Above all else, the key to remember when you’re on the plane are seven little words.

“I will never see these people again”

It is my personal mantra when travelling and has served me well over the years.

It didn’t quite work out that way on our last trip.  The family sitting behind us on the plane, who complained about my daughter’s stimming, was staying at our resort and we saw them daily.

As much as children on the spectrum need schedules and consistency it’s important that you as a parent learn to go with the flow.  If you’d planned a day of sight seeing and your child doesn’t seem to be into it, change your plans.  If you’re at the Zoo and your child is tantruming, it’s ok to leave.  You don’t have to suffer through the rest of the day.


I generally try to practice parenting by path of least resistance.  This is especially true while on vacation.  While you can’t escape your responsibilities it’s important to relax and enjoy each day as it comes.

A BIG thank you to Jennifer for contributing this series to our community. If you have questions for her, feel free to leave them in the comment section below.

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