Travelling with a Special Needs Child: Part One

by Emma Hackwood

DSC01684Jennifer MacDonald has had to become her own expert at traveling with a special needs child. Her tips and suggestions come from many years of trial and error of travelling with her family which includes her daughter that is on the Autism spectrum.  After realizing that there wasn’t much of an online resource for other parents seeking advice on travelling, she’s taken it upon herself to help others by writing a three-part series. We can’t thank her enough for this contribution and will share her tips with our readers over the next coming weeks:

I was recently asked by a friend of a friend for some tips on how to travel with a special needs child.  Our daughter is 8 years old and has autism and we’ve travelled extensively with her since she was 18 months old.  While her receptive and functional communication is good, she has limited expressive communication.  What that means is that while she will understand you if you tell her to sit on the chair, and she can ask you for a cookie, she can’t answer questions like “how are you” or “what do you want to do”.  While we don’t use PECS (Picture Exchange Communications System) for communication we do use the PECS cards for visual scheduling and First Then boards.

Add some behavioural and sensory issues into the mix and it can make travelling very challenging.

However, we’ve been very lucky and have been travelling with her since she was 18 months old with great success.  We do a lot of preparation ahead of time and I thought I’d give you some hints on how to make the whole experience easier for everyone.

First think about where you want to go and what you want to do and be realistic.  If you know your child doesn’t do well in crowds, why bother with the trip to Disney?  Make sure that the vacation you’re taking is going to be a good one for everyone.  If you’re going to have to spend the entire time heading off meltdowns you might want to reconsider your destination.

But, if your child really *wants* to go to Disney or any of those types of places call ahead and see what accommodations they have.  Lots of theme parks have special services for children with special needs.  Disney parks offer a Guest Assistance Card which can be obtained from Guest Relations upon presentation of a note from your doctor outlining your child’s disability.  Check out All Ears.Net for some great tips for enjoying Disney with your children with special needs.

Once you’ve decided on a destination, whether it’s an all inclusive resort in the Caribbean or a 10 hour road trip to see the largest ball of twine in Minnesota, you need to prepare for the actual trip and your stay in a new environment.  As anyone with a special needs child knows, change is not always a good thing.

DSC01652If your child has a favourite toy, plate, spoon, cup, etc. – bring it with you.  You’ll want to try and do whatever you can to make things as familiar as possible for your child; especially if they don’t handle change well.  If you’re travelling to visit friends or family consider sending items ahead by courier so that you’re not overloading yourself with luggage.  One year we packed the Fisher Price Aquarium and my daughter’s bed rails because that was what she needed to be able to sleep.  You do what you have to do.

Don’t be afraid to bring food with you, especially if you are visiting a different country and won’t be able to buy familiar foods.  I remember one year when my daughter refused to eat anything at the resort’s restaurants.  The only thing she ate the week we were there was Cheerios and chocolate chip cookies we’d brought from home and single serve boxes of Rice Krispie Cereal from the breakfast buffet (we’d grab 3 or 4 at breakfast and put them in our beach bag).  Now when we travel, we always make sure we have granola bars, cereal, crackers and cereal bars with us in case she won’t eat again.

An alternative is to find a rental with a kitchen.  There are several different all suite hotel chains that have kitchenettes and you can also try Vacation Rentals By Owner.  After our disastrous trip when my daughter would not eat we made sure to book our next vacation in a two bedroom suite in Florida with a kitchen where I could cook our meals.  While not as much of a vacation for me, it was definitely less stressful when I knew she was well fed.

Have more questions for Jennifer? Feel free to leave them in the comment section below and be sure to stay tuned for Part 2 of her series next Wednesday.

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