Vacationing with a special needs child

family-on-vacationWhen you have a child with special needs, taking a vacation can be a challenge. Often a child with a delay or disability does not like change of any kind – he may find it particularly upsetting and anxiety producing. So, removing him from his own bed, room and home can be difficult at best. You are going into alien territory…soooo scary! It may make you wonder if going away for a weekend or week is even worth the effort. But, with a little planning ahead of time and a few strategies for the road, it can usually be done successfully.

Prepare ahead of time

If you know that your little one dislikes change, it may be necessary to prepare him for what is to come. Whether or not your child can understand verbal language, create a photo that shows your child and all family members at your upcoming destination. You can do this by printing out a photo of the place where you are going, and then putting individual photos of your family on top of it (kind of like playing with paper dolls). Help your child participate with this task so he actively sees himself at the place.  If you have a photo of the room where he will sleep, it may help for him to place himself on the bed. Tell the story of how you are going to put all of his things in a suitcase and go on a happy trip to this new place.

When it comes time to leave, be sure that your little one “helps” you pack his belongings. Start the process several days beforehand and leave the open suitcase in his room on the floor, so that he and you can place special items in it.  Don’t forget the special stuffed animals or dolls, blankets or whatever comfort item your child loves. These will be very important transition items when you arrive at your destination; they will help him to associate “home” with his new surrounding.

Be sure to pack some of his favorite foods. Don’t assume that you will be able to find the staples that he likes in a new grocery store. Often, brands are different. My daughter used to eat only one brand of American cheese and could taste the difference if I substituted.  By having a supply of consistent foods, you provide stability and comfort.

On the trip

If your child struggles with language (expressive or receptive), does not talk yet, or is non-verbal, you may be familiar with a communication picture book. This is a notebook that contains small photos or images of common items, such as his bottle, pacifier, specific toys, certain foods or snacks, a bath tub, your car, clothes or outfits (for getting dressed), pajamas, his bed or porta-crib, stroller, etc.  You help your baby, toddler or child get through transitions by pointing to the image of what you are about to do. Likewise, you can encourage your little one to point to the item that he needs (eg. he may point to his bottle when he is thirsty).  Going to new places can be especially scary for a special needs child. The more ways to encourage communication, the less frustrated and scared your child will be.

Often children behave one way at home and another way on the road. If your usual routine is upset, your child may act out. Positive rewards can go a long way in shaping behavior.  But, you need to figure out what “reward” works best for your child. One example is to use a sticker chart (where a star or sticker is placed on a chart for every positive behavior).  Another idea is to bring along a bag of surprises for your child to give as rewards for compliant behavior. For example, if your child is a toddler and has trouble allowing you to dress him, offer a “prize” for getting dressed without tears or tantrums. A tiny new item given as soon as he complies can go a long way in making him feel good about himself and may help you avoid an exhausting tantrum.  (Dollar discount stores are excellent places to stock up on tiny, fun items for this purpose.) If you already have a behavioral system in place, try to keep it going while on vacation. CONSISTENCY is the key.

Where should you go?

Thanks to the internet, you can find almost anything at your fingertips. Here are some suggestions:

• Here are tons of travel tips, including 32 vacation destinations for families with special needs children, and a review of the best places to go.

• The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality offers tips and resources, including an article on their 10 Golden Rules of Autistic Travel.

• And here are 101 Things to Do When There’s Nothing to Do -Emergency time-wasters for planes, cars, lines, and waiting rooms.

Bottom line

Traveling with your special needs child may involve a good deal of foresight and coordination, but it may also bring you extra joys.  The up-side is that the stimulation and family togetherness may help your child make developmental strides. My daughter’s language used to soar after a vacation. Her speech therapist encouraged us to take her on weekend jaunts as frequently as possible to help stimulate language development. The extra planning and care necessary to help my daughter with the transition from home to hotel was well worth it.

Have you traveled with your special needs child?  Have any tips you’d like to share?

Note: This post is part of the weekly series Delays and disabilities – how to get help for your child. It was started on January 16, 2013 and appears every Wednesday. Go to News Moms Need and click on “Help for your child” on the menu on the right side under “Categories” to view all of the blog posts to date. As always, we welcome your comments and input.

Have questions? Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.org.

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