Kids with Special Needs and Family Travel
Summer & Family Travel
Summer travel with a child with special needs can definitely add adventure to your plans. Still, take time for careful planning and discuss things with the whole family first, so that an adventure doesn’t translate into a nightmare. We all dream of relaxing on warm sandy beaches, curling up fireside in the mountains, or touring beautiful, historic locales. Just getting to those destinations in one piece can be draining without a careful plan. Here’s how to avoid tiring trips, activities, and wearing out loved ones and caregivers.
With last minute rushing, essential items are often left behind. This may mean you’ll get less than pleasant facilities or experience long, unnecessary lines. Stress can flare up symptoms of your child’s disability or illness. Planning ahead is critical and it’s the key ingredient in making your trip an enjoyable, painless experience. And children with sensory or emotional triggers will be subject to less stress and prepared for more fun.
First, where’s the family off to this summer? What’s going to go on when you get there? Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Be honest with your limitations, those of your child, and your travel companions. Choose a destination that you and your special needs children will be physically and emotionally comfortable with. If anyone is sensitive to hot weather, well it’s probably not a good idea to plan a trip to Arizona in the middle of July. If you don’t do well climbing stairs because your child is on crutches, in a wheelchair or stroller, don’t plan a long walking tour of historic homes, which usually feature high porches and multiple floors – unless they have a video at the visitor center or an alternate tour to meet your needs. Keep it real and fun. Cobblestone streets can wreak havoc on your son or daughter’s hips and legs from sitting too long.
Discuss possible scenarios together. Knowing you are free to say, “I’m really tired. I think I’ll skip the Waterfall Canyon tour this afternoon” or “Would you help Molly in the bathroom while I get a snack?” allows you to relax, enjoy yourself and helps alleviate tension.
While most large hotel/motel chains have 800 numbers, you should call the hotel directly to make reservations. Ask very specific questions about the facility where you’re staying. Ask for a room that is on the main floor or near the elevator to minimize the distance you have to drag yourself, your child has to go on their crutches or braces, and the luggage has to be hauled. Some economy hotels don’t offer general bellman services, but if you need the accommodation, they’re usually happy to help if you ask. Be sure to specify the accommodations you or your child will need — whether its wheelchair accessibility, shower grab bars or if you need a non-smoking room for your baby’s toxin sensitivities or nephew’s oxygen use.
If you find the hotel bed uncomfortable, ask for more pillows. And hotels do have cribs. Ask! Can’t figure out the thermostat and need more blankets? Ask! You are the guest. You and your child deserve what you need. If you like, you could go to a nearby discount store and buy a foam “egg crate” mattress pad to make the firm mattress a little less hard on your child’s sensitive back, minimize pressure sores. The added comfort is worth it. Because it’s cheap, you can leave it behind or roll it up and take it with you. They are easy and make light packing.
Worried the 17”-19” toilet height won’t accommodate? Get measurements. Ask if the hotel has a raised commode seat if it’s too low, or bring your own commode chair. Many older hotels have tried, to no avail, to retrofit themselves to be accessible, but make sure they’ve done it the way you and your child need, not just for your care giving, but also so your child can be the most independent he can be. It might even be good to bring a portable, raised commode lid (use double sided Velcro or tape to secure to toilet) that’s easy to clean and store in your suitcase or car trunk. It might be good to have one anyway for those yucky gas station bathrooms.
Some hotels have photos on their website of their room amenities. If not, ask if they will measure some doorways for you or take digital photos and email to you. If they want your business, they’ll do it. Or family you may be visiting in the area can go to that hotel, take the photos for you and email them. Find out if the list of amenities includes assistance animals, if appropriate, even if they don’t allow pets. Explain to them your child’s situation. Find out about their services if your child is deaf or hard of hearing, in terms of phone call alerts and wake-up alarms. Remember to maximize your child’s independence and sense of security away from home.
How much activity can you or your child take? It’s natural to want to see and do it all in the time you have, and a child with special needs is no different – nor should they be! But that’s no reason to cram a lifetime into one trip. Schedule rest periods that allow brief relaxation, even a nap for you, your child and the nanny you have with you. Even hired help needs a break to get the most out of their energy. Take time to shake it out if your child gets antsy sitting still in a wheelchair or scooter too long. Short attention spans deserve a breather as well. Plan short, quality-rich activities to meet the needs your child has. Time with headphones or a book for sensory sensitive kids 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 café. Enjoy a local beverage and snack that revs up everyone’s energy. 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 and nap for a bit, read or watch TV together and talk as a family about tomorrow’s adventures. Get a bath or shower and freshen up with 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.
Have you decided to fly to your destination? Call the airline directly and tell the customer service representative you and your child will need certain considerations. Be specific. Ask a lot of questions about where you’ll be seated, their transition assistance from the waiting area to boarding the plane and more.
You may want to request one of the first seats in coach, or a bulkhead aisle seat. This is the easiest seat to get in and out of and has the most leg room, particularly if you can’t stand well or use bulky leg braces and crutches. What about your oxygen or medications for your carry-on bags? Since 9/11, rules are different, so explain in detail what you will need and make sure that’s all taken care of. Keep your child’s medications in their prescription bottles and whether in carry-on or checked bags, ask your doctor if you need spare prescriptions to keep with you in the event your luggage is lost with that essential medication. Make sure onboard meals are friendly to any allergies or specific dietary needs your child has as well.
Place brief instruction signage or sticky notes on wheelchairs and walkers that need to be folded down in airplane storage.
Allow extra layover time when changing planes, too, so if the flight is running a little late, you will still make your connecting flight without being rushed. You’ll have plenty of time to disembark, stretch, and make your way as a happy family to the next flight. Ask the airline what arrangements or assistance you need to make to minimize walking or pushing wheelchairs across the thick carpet in the airports. Even if your child doesn’t normally use a wheelchair, ask that a wheelchair be waiting curbside and at the gate of each stop so they are made more comfortable. Explain this to your child ahead of time if they don’t normally use one; they may enjoy the ride. But let them know you are helping them save all their energy for sightseeing and other fun activities. As for your ticket and boarding pass, get them there ahead of time to minimize your wait in line.
Considering a road trip instead? Stop for a few minutes every hour or two to stretch out, whether your son or daughter uses a wheelchair, braces or needs a breather to take medications or go to the restroom. Get out of the car, stretch and wiggle around a little, make it a game and look for special rocks in the parking lot or along the driveway at each stop if you like. Staying in any one position too long will make a child’s limbs become stiff, increasing pain or aggravating any spastic conditions. Plan your seating strategy. If there is room in the car, make a bed in the backseat so your child has the chance to lie down when necessary. I used to travel with our family dog across my chest in the backseat on cold evenings during Christmas break. Summer vacation is no different and makes pet and child happy. Try out a variety of sitting positions. Does your child need an extra cushion? How about a neck 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, beef jerky, whatever is on your child’s eating plan and keeps them energized or well rested. Make sure you’ve got an extra pair of shoes and socks to either keep their feet clean, dry and warm or cool, depending on the conditions. An extra shirt and pair of pants to stay fresh on a long, hot road trip is important, too. Not feeling fresh makes a child, particularly one with sensory issues, a little frantic. Make sure your child’s adaptive equipment, like the wheelchair lift, all the lock downs and straps work before the road trip. The worst thing to happen is a bolt or mechanism comes loose and you are far from home. So, make sure everything is tuned up and ready to go. Do you have your oxygen reserve? Where’s the extra inhaler? What about ear plugs or a blackout mask to avoid overstimulation of traffic lights, noise and road construction?
Are the kids ready for the 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. Think long and hard about it before you compromise your body, too, with all the pushing and carrying, in addition to compromising everyone else’s fun time. 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 (call first). This will allow your family to do a lot more for a longer period and expend less energy.
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.
Plan ahead, play out all the scenarios and create simple checklists. Summer vacation will be a blast if you keep all these things in mind.