All children need to experience the joy of adventure. And certainly, special-needs children are no exception to that rule.
It’s empowering for parents like Molly David, whose daughter, Reagan, is 22 and has severe disabilities, to break the stereotype that their children are unable to live full lives. David has always taken her daughter on family outings since she was a baby. “It has allowed Reagan to be fully part of our lives. It never occurred to us to not travel with her,” David says.
David believes that bringing her daughter along on trips positively impacts the people they meet. According to her, other people need to see Reagan travel and enjoy these experiences. “When we were in Myrtle Beach in July,” she says, “some people seemed shocked to see her in the ocean in her beach wheelchair. Many people didn’t even know that these types of chairs existed. So, an added benefit is that we educate others.”
While traveling is more complicated (at first) and sometimes stressful, David admits that it is totally worth it. Her daughter’s joy, apparent in the way she “lights up” when she sees her beloved Disney characters at Disney Parks, and other shared experiences, David notes, are treasured family memories.
Travel is unquestionably one of the best ways to strengthen family relationships and create lasting memories. If you, like David, wish to make travel joyful for a special-needs child, here is some professional advice on how to make your child’s experience enjoyable.
Table of Contents
1. Start Small
Dawn Barclay is the author of Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022) and the special needs contributing editor for InsiderTravelReport. Barclay advises starting small to assist your kid in becoming mentally ready for the activities ahead. Here are some suggestions she makes:
- Introduce the concept of travel with picture books featuring a child’s favorite characters in travel situations
- Review pictures and videos of every aspect of your upcoming vacation via YouTube or videos provided by the travel supplier
- Role-play various aspects of the trip. Role-play can help you teach a child respect for other travelers and boundaries. For example, not kicking the seat in front of you in an airplane.
- Create mini-experiences. Before a cruise, take a ferry ride. Before a long train trip, take a short commuter one. Before going on a trip with sightseeing tours, visit a local zoo, aquarium, or museum. Before a camping trip, set out a tent in the backyard. And before a plane ride, check to see if Wings for Autism is offered at your local airport, which is like a dress rehearsal of the airport experience. Or call the airline and see if they can set up a tour in advance.
2. Make Preparations
Preparing thoroughly helps to ease your child’s anxiety and prepares them for the trip’s new experiences. According to Barclay, the following tips can help you prepare in advance:
- Figure out every aspect of your trip, from leaving the house to returning home again. Think about where the triggers will be for your particular child. For example, if your child hates crowds and strangers and is sensitive to smells, perhaps taking a taxi from the airport to your hotel would be a better choice than taking the free transfer bus, even if it is cheaper.
- Come up with backup plans for every possibility you can think of. For example, having little gifts your child knows about that you’ll give them every 30 minutes of delay on the tarmac may make the child root for airplane delays. At the very least, it will be a consolation. Just make sure the child knows this backup plan in advance, so no eventuality is a total surprise.
- Also, consider new sensory stimuli. If your child has never been to the beach before, buy sand at a crafts or hardware store, lay out a tarp, and spread it out for them to walk on. Practice wearing layered clothing if you live in warmer climes and you are visiting a colder climate.
3. Create a Child-Centric Vacation
Ultimately, the trip should be about your child; as such, Barclay emphasizes allowing them to have a say and considering their choices and interests when deciding where to visit. She suggests the following ways to make this happen.
- Give the child some input by deciding on two or three acceptable vacations (all vetted by you), and let the child be the one to decide. The same can go for daily activities. Remind the child of what will happen each day with a visual schedule – pictures instead of words portraying each activity. This gives the child a vested interest in the success of the trip.
- Pace the trip to match the child’s abilities. Even if you won’t get to do everything you may have wanted to do, visiting one or two places each day and then decompressing by the pool or television in the afternoon may lead to more pleasant memories for the child.
- Design a trip around a child’s special interests. Parents should consider choosing special interest museums and children’s museums around the country.
Barclay notes that these tips are key to traveling with children with invisible disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and more. According to the author, the most important thing to understand is that all children crave routine and predictability, and travel pulls them out of that routine. As such, creating predictability is a matter of making the unfamiliar familiar to them.
4. Yes to Noise-Canceling Headphones
According to Jared Kiddoe, child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, many special-needs kids, including those on the spectrum, have significant environmental sensitivities to light, smells, touches, and sounds. Often, these kids may be on the autism spectrum, but other kids with diagnoses such as ADHD or those with sensory processing disorders may also struggle with this.
Certain loud noises that we may easily filter out into the background can be overwhelming and even painful for certain special-needs kids. For example, there are many loud noises at airports and in airplanes, from plane engines to the cacophony of large crowds traversing the airport, continuous construction, and overhead announcements continually broadcast over speakers in the airport.
Car rides can also get pretty loud, especially with families where there may be a lot of loud laughing or even squabbling among siblings.
Since all these environments can be overwhelming, noise-canceling headphones, according to the psychiatrist, can turn overwhelming situations into manageable ones, allowing kids to still participate in the necessity of travel without having a terrible experience.
5. Connect With Nature
“The gentle sounds and smell, not to mention nature,” Kiddoe says, can calm even the most behaviorally challenged child. He adds that being in nature also exposes children to sunlight, which helps build Vitamin D, an essential element in helping to fight depression.
It’s also an opportunity to disconnect from technology. Many children with special needs use too much technology as it may be an easier way for caregivers to get a break from some of their more disruptive behaviors.
So finding ways to be outside in nature during trips, Kiddoe says, is a great alternative with none of the downsides of excessive technology time. He further notes that visiting national parks give kids the opportunity to see nature at its peak. Plus, individuals with disabilities are entitled to a free lifetime pass from National Parks Service. Places like the Grand Canyon or forest parks allow children to see the grand scale of nature and its wonder. It’s calming and exciting for many children to see these beautiful sights!
“Interactive kids and touch museums,” Kiddoe says, “allow for a wide variety of sensory engagement in a way that is not often possible in everyday life.” This type of stimulatory interaction, according to the child psychiatrist, can be very calming and engaging. It can also help special-needs kids learn information in ways traditional classrooms do not offer.
Overcoming the fear of traveling is the most difficult challenge. Still, once parents get the hang of planning ahead and figuring out the best routes, taking a disabled child on the road becomes second nature.
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