I often write articles for special needs families dealing with issues ranging from learning disabilities to attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD)/attention-deficit disorder (ADD), and from sensory processing disorder (SPD) to autism. As a psychotherapist, I see many women in my practice who are struggling as mothers of special needs children in trying to keep their heads above water, existing mostly in survival mode. As a mother of a special needs child, I can completely relate to the challenges involved in raising a child who is exceptional and loved in all ways and yet taxes the reserves beyond description.
I write this article from my own perspective, as a mother of two precious boys, ages 11 and 6 years. My youngest is challenged with SPD, a neurologic condition that looks a lot like ADD/ADHD in young children. Fortunately, my son is developing beautifully, despite these challenges, due to the absolute blessing of occupational therapy and an incredible educational support team. I look back just a few years, and I see the incredible progress he has made. I am so proud of my little boy.
I also remember what it was like to travel with a very rambunctious toddler with SPD on a five-hour, cross-country airplane trip. It is not an experience I wish to replicate, and I am frankly happy that it is a past chapter. Thankfully, now my youngster is a seasoned traveler who enjoys and can tolerate longer traveling expedition—but it was not always that way. I want to offer some hope and suggestions for parents who look forward to summer vacation but perhaps have some reticence about traveling with their special needs youngster.
The following are some tips I have learned from being in the trenches as the parent of a child challenged with SPD. This list is by no means exhaustive. There are a wide range of challenges that children and families manage. Please feel free to post additional tips to help the special needs parents reading this article:
- If at all possible, travel with a family member or support person. This individual will be able to give you breaks on the airplane and help entertain your youngster. You absolutely will need breaks.
- Bring snacks. Children with SPD enjoy the sensory input of chewing (try dye-free licorice, sweet/sour candies, crackers, and high-protein snacks like nuts). Bring chewing gum if your child is old enough to safely chew gum.
- An electronic device with earplugs/headphones is miraculous. The headphones provide the proprioceptive input so helpful for SPD children, in addition to direct auditory input, without the distraction of all the noise in an airplane or car. The visual distraction of a movie or video game for a preschool or older child offered simultaneously is beneficial.
- Be prepared to get up and walk the aisle with your child and visit the flight attendants in the back galley. Be sure to choose an aisle seat for easy access.
- Bring fidget toys: Rubix cube, squishy Play-Doh, rubber bands to pull/stretch (thereby providing the needed sensory input), heavy blanket, laptop to place in child’s lap for proprioceptive/heavy input. Again, I can’t stress enough that headphones (not ear buds) provide sensory input and also direct auditory input; pre-program an Ipod/Ipad/phone with a playlist of tunes your child is soothed by, and be sure to have it ready to go.
- If the worst case scenario occurs and your child goes into “Meltdown Mode,” remember that you will most likely never see any of the passengers on the plane ever again. Be reassured, no matter how difficult the trip is, that you will survive it, and so will your child. You may grow a few extra gray hairs in the process, however.
- Perhaps plan the flight during your child’s typical naptime; sometimes the movement of the airplane/car can help calm children and help them to sleep. But you know your child best. If your child is stimulated by movement, don’t plan the flight/trip at bedtime, and conversely, a bedtime flight just might be very peaceful.
- If your child is old enough to know about consequences, continue with a behavior management program for your child to earn a small reward every 30 minutes for showing appropriate, prosocial behavior (e.g., no kicking the seat in front). Or implement a sticker chart for a larger reward at end of flight. If traveling with an adult family member, seat one adult directly in front of your child so that the passenger in front of the child tolerates any bumps from a swift (albeit unintentional) kick to the seat.
- Find out before the flight what kind of accommodations are available for families with special needs children. Is there a preboarding provision available? Plan ahead for aisle/bulkhead/rear seating. Perhaps pull the flight attendant aside before the flight and cue him or her in on your situation so that airplane staff members are aware of the potential need for extra assistance. Let them know you will be visiting the galley frequently with your youngster.
- Enlist assistance of older siblings who also need to be rewarded for appropriate behavior and for helping with entertaining and distracting a special needs sibling. Be prepared to honor the sibling with a special reward for extra help and patience.
- Befriend your child’s grandparents and extended family. I can’t stress enough the importance of a support team while traveling. It is possible to do it solo (which I have), but not recommended if you don’t have to.
- The airplane bathroom can be an adventure. (Yeah, I mean it). For youngsters who thrive on moving their bodies, a trip to the potty in an airplane can be “The Most Amazing Experience Ever,” including all the discussions of where stuff goes once it’s flushed. Don’t forget to bring your own stash of hand sanitizer.
- Practice mini-relaxation techniques (see Alice Domar’s book Self-Nurture for some great stress reduction/deep breathing exercises) for both you and your child.
- This will likely be one of the most difficult experiences you endure as a special needs parent: in a fuselage, surrounded by people, sensory input for your child which you have no control over (except muting). It might even approach nightmarish in description.
- Begin to envision the people you will be visiting who will be assisting you with your child. Visualize a reward for yourself: a massage, a pedicure, or just a good night’s sleep with the assistance of family/friends/hired help for your child.
- Be okay with postponing a trip until your child is mature enough to manage the stress of traveling. Let’s face it, traveling with very young children is not relaxing, whether or not you have a child with special needs. Add the latter layer, and you have a recipe for more-than-stressful. As a special needs parent, you owe it to yourself to be as prepared as you can be.
I hope this list of suggestions is helpful. I have been there, and I have lived to tell the tale. I can honestly say that now, I not only enjoy traveling with my special needs youngster, it’s truly the highlight of my life to travel with my family—time, maturity, and development make a world of difference.
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