Travel Tips for the Special Needs Family

Airplane flyingI 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jennifer

    June 7th, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    Navigating the travel plans for a family without any special needs is difficult. I honestly don’t know how I would do it if I had that added pressure of planning for any and all situations that could come up with a special needs familiy member too. I guess I have never really given it too much though until reading this piece today, but it opened my eyes to the struggles that these families face and manage on a daily basis that the rest of us really know little about. It makes me thankful for the family I have, but amazed at how much other families manage to do and succeed at even in the face of such hard work.

  • Frances

    June 7th, 2012 at 1:14 PM

    We have an autistic daughter, and I make it a point to pretty much never go anywhere alone with just the two of us. She has been known to run away, and if it’s just me than I am afriad that she will get away from me and I would not be able to stop her.

    I have a wonderful husband and support system of friends who I always have around no matter how far I have to travel. And we always make it a point to divide any trip into small stretches so that nothing feels too overwhelming to her.

    All of this can be stressful at first, but as you come to know your child more and more it is easier to see the things that work best for her and the things that you may need to avoid. It is all a learning process.

  • xavier

    June 8th, 2012 at 4:34 AM

    I hate it when I see those families who are not as prepared as the writer here. You can see the misery in the children and the parents and it makes me feel bad for the whole group of them.

  • Virginia

    June 8th, 2012 at 2:49 PM

    Personally, I know this is going to sound shallow and I don’t mean for it to be, but if I had to follow thru with this many tips before traveling then I don’t think that I would manage to be able to ever leave the house!

    My goodness, traveling can be such a headache on a good day, but to add to this all of the extras that these families have to account for must be exhausting!

    This is a situation where it truly does take a village.

  • Andrea

    June 8th, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    Yes, traveling with children is a Herculean feat for most all parents, whether or not your child(ren) have special needs…however, it is well worth the effort. My family’s best memories are those involving travel, camping, adventure, nature, exploring….truly wonderful fun and do-able! A spirit of adventure, patience, and an extra set of arms always helps :))

  • james d

    June 9th, 2012 at 7:06 AM

    Since we had our daughter, who has Downs, taking trips, long or short, has taken on a whole new meaning! At first my wife and I were scared to try to do these trips because we did not know how Shelby would react. But she is so good, so flexible, and I know that we are very fortunate in that respect. It does help to have an extra set of hands so that you are not having to manage it all by yourself, but we have been very lucky as we have never had to do anything too extraordinary to make a vacation a reality. Somehow evevrything just always seems to work out.

  • Brad lewis

    June 10th, 2012 at 2:03 PM

    All of you parents out there who have to live with special needs children are such an inspiration, as are your children. Most of you handle what has been given to you beautifully and without complaint, which is something that I don’t see even parents of the most “perfect” children possessing the ability to do. I think that we could all learn a little something about how to love our children and love them a little better from the example that so many of you are setting through your work, your words, and your deeds. Thanks.

  • Psych

    June 11th, 2012 at 12:53 AM

    Praise should go to parents who look for the personal interests of their children who has special needs. This world gives us a lot to go through just to live, but thankful we are to have the ability to love and to shower them unconditionally to those who need it most.

  • Andrea

    June 11th, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    Thanks for the kind and encouraging posts all… I consider it an honor and a blessing to raise my sons, one of whom has mild challenges (sensory integration)….I don’t wish for my special needs son to struggle, but I know with the resources, love, and support he receives, he is a happy, contributing member to society. That is all that I ever want for my children….to feel loved, to be happy and to make a difference in this world. And that has already manifested. I don’t feel sorry for myself or my son. We all have challenges in different ways…it’s how we deal with them and channel our strengths that makes the difference :)

  • Lindsay M.

    June 23rd, 2014 at 12:15 PM

    Here’s another tip that I have found to work magic on other passengers that might be cranky. Get a 6 pack of big snickers bars and pass them out with ear plugs to all the passengers who sit around you. Tell them as you do this – I’m so sorry for any disturbance you will endure from my kid during this flight. He/she has (insert disorder) and has a VERY hard time sitting still and not bumping the seat in front of her. But my husband and I will do everything we can to keep her from doing it and from loosing it. But if she does, please try to understand.
    I found this to make all the people around us into helpers and kind empathetic people. I had another flight where it was exactly the opposite and that is why I took up this tactic.

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