Going out of town for vacation rejuvenates most of us, but those interruptions in routine can throw a child with special needs into a tailspin. Many parents might settle for a staycation, figuring it to be the least stressful option, even if it penalizes other siblings eager to bolt town.
But experts say with some careful planning and preparation, families with children of all types can enjoy hitting the road (or skies) for a trip that will yield more rewards than meltdowns.
“It’s always about preparing the person and preparing the place,” said Chantal Sicile-Kara, founder of the Autism College and author of “Autism Life Skills” and several other books. “It’s about not packing too much stuff into the vacation, and scheduling down time and access to their favorite things.”
Here are some tips for having a fun, and relaxing, family vacation with your child with special needs.
• Choose your destination wisely. There is no one perfect vacation spot for a child with special needs. But if you take their likes, dislikes and sensory difficulties into account when planning your trip, it will make the vacation more pleasant for the entire family.
“It’s a matter of knowing your child, knowing how much they can tolerate socially, knowing what their fixations are and what their sensory needs are,” said Cathy Pratt, a member of the board of directors of the Autism Society and the director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University.
For some kids, a trip to a crowded and noisy city would be a disaster. Sicile-Kara found, though, that the city was a perfect vacation for her son Jeremy, who is fascinated with different types of transportation. For another child, a water destination might be the best plan. Or a quiet camping trip. Some children gravitate toward the motion of amusement park rides, so visiting a theme park at off-peak times is an option.
• Use social stories. These little books with pictures of places such as airports, hotels or parks can help a person with autism prepare for an upcoming experience. Knowing what to expect when they arrive at a crowded airport or a hotel that smells different than home can alleviate some of the stress that comes from interrupting their routines.
“We would make a little book with pictures of the steps that we were going to do: a car taking us to the airport, then the airport, then the plane,” Sicile-Kara said. “We read it every night. Even if they are really high-functioning, you have to prepare them for the sensory experience that they’re going to have.”
• Take advantage of special accommodations. Call ahead to places you might want to visit, or to airlines, and ask about any allowances they make for children with special needs. It can turn a potentially stressful situation into a more positive experience.
Disney’s theme parks, for example, will allow families with a member with special needs to bypass long lines. You can also request special seating on airlines or trains, a quiet hotel room or a wheelchair to help you get from gate to gate during a quick transfer at an airport. There are cruise lines that block off groups of rooms for families affected by autism, and have special dining areas and activities for them.
• Take a practice trip. Go away for a weekend, choosing a place that is just a few hours away by plane or car, before attempting a longer trip. It will give everyone a chance to get used to traveling, and it might help identify potential problem spots.
You’re better off finding out during a two-night stay at a hotel, rather than on a two-week cruise, that your child needs his own pillow to fall asleep in a strange bed.
• Pack the comforts of home. A familiar stuffed animal, pillow or snack can go a long way toward easing anxiety about a broken routine.
“Identify if there is a certain toy or object they need to have with them,” Pratt said. “And if the child is nonverbal, make sure you have their communication system with you. No matter how much you prepare, you have to be prepared for the unexpected.”