Travel Tips For Families Of Children With Special Needs

Family travel involves significant planning whether it be for a weeklong trip or a short getaway. When traveling with a child who has special needs, significantly more preparation is often necessary.

Here are some useful travel tips for a last minute vacation:

Based on past travel experiences and known stressors, try to anticipate potential problems. Parents may want to spend time creating specific solutions to these challenges as well as enlisting targeted coping strategies. For example, if you know that your child has a strong preference for seating when dining out, prepare by calling ahead and/or by creating relevant coping strategies like drawing materials.

Prepare a detailed itinerary. For most children with special needs, predictability is an essential component to a successful outing. Prepare a written itinerary with photos and simple descriptions of the places you might visit. Review the itinerary prior to the trip and each morning that you are traveling.

Pack familiar items. Bringing items from home to your destination can allow your child to experience a sense of continuity as you travel from one setting to another and, therefore, help to ease the transition to a new place. Encourage your child to bring personal items like his/her own pillow and blanket as well as a few familiar toys. Allow your child to arrange his/her part of the hotel or room you are staying in with his/her own items to help create a more secure and familiar environment.

Create a reasonable transportation schedule. If traveling by car, anticipate how much driving you will do between stops, and plan to stop at multiple locations. Consider the environment within the car. Is it well organized? Does your child have enough personal space? Does your child need a familiar object with him or her during the drive? Does your child have a variety of activities to keep him or her engaged? Is the temperature in the car comfortable?

Plane travel requires special considerations. If your child has not yet flown and/or describes anxiety related to plane travel you will want to help familiarize him or her with the sights, sounds and feelings associated with it. Autism Speaks and JetBlue have developed the Blue Horizons program for first time travelers and for those with special needs who have significant concerns about air travel.

Get a good night’s sleep. A good night’s sleep can go a long way towards decreasing irritability or anxiety and increasing the ability to focus and engage in new and interesting activities. Consider bringing familiar night time books along with you on your trip.

Overall, anticipating potential challenges and careful planning can help to decrease stress and increase enjoyment during family vacations, especially when traveling with a special needs child.

Alison Gilbert, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine with a certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from U.C. Davis.

Alison Gilbert
Alison Gilbert, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is currently a clinical assistant professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine with a certificate in autism spectrum disorders from U.C. Davis.

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