When my eldest daughter, Diella, was 1, I decided to take her on a long trip to England.
Traveling alone with a non-ambulatory, screaming child was a nightmare. We faced multiple noisy, crowded airports, bright lights and general chaos. I’m not sure who cried the most. It’s fair to say that both of us arrived at our destination overwhelmed, fatigued and traumatized.
Taking a vacation with young children can be challenging. Add in a child’s special needs, such as sensory processing, and these challenges can be daunting. Planning ahead is the key to success when taking a family vacation with a special needs child. While traveling with a special needs child may require some adjustments, the whole family will benefit from some careful preparation.
When traveling with a child on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing difficulties, it’s particularly important to take steps to avoid over stimulation and meltdowns. Whether traveling on a plane or in a car, the following tips will go a long way to helping your family travel as comfortably as possible
Prepare your child. Discuss the trip and, if possible, write a social story about what to expect when traveling. Use your child as the main character. Special needs children don’t like uncertainty, which will often overwhelm them and trigger behavior problems. Provide visuals of the upcoming trip. Create a family travel map together to help young children understand where they are going and what they might see.
Try shorter trips first. If you don’t think your child can tolerate an eight-hour road trip, try a more manageable one first. A one- to two-hour trip to see some familiar relatives is less likely to overwhelm and cause as much discomfort.
My daughter, Diella, learned this first-hand. Her son Jack was born two months premature and has some sensory issues. When Jack was almost 2, we decided to take a family vacation to Cape Cod (an eight-hour car trip on a weekend in the summer). Although they took frequent pit stops, Jack had great difficulty tolerating confinement in his car seat for such an extended period and being out of sync with his schedule and routines. Once they arrived, the unfamiliar surroundings only increased his anxiety. The first day or so was spent in their room, slowly helping Jack adjust to his new environment. For a while after that trip, each time we had to put Jack in his car seat, he screamed. Now 3-1/2, he recently had a successful three-hour overnight trip to unknown places to see unfamiliar relatives. In addition, he, his parents and 1-year-old sister are again making the trip to Cape Cod in August (midweek) – this time armed with experience and the necessary pre-planning.
If your trip includes flying, take a trip to the airport. ARC, the nation’s leading advocate for people with disabilities and their families, works with Wings for Autism, which plans practice events to help special needs families prepare for upcoming flights.
Adhere to routines where possible. It’s tempting to change the pace on vacation. Sleep in later, relax the rules. Think about your child’s regular rhythms. If your child gets cranky late
mornings, you might want to schedule a later departure. If not using the iPad for more than 15 mins is a rule at home, follow the same rules. If it’s not allowed in the car on short trips, don’t think about changing that rule for a long trip. This can be very tempting as these electronics are temporarily great at calming many sensory kids. Diella used to give Jack her iPad to use on all car trips to keep him occupied. Even on short trips, however, he tended to get overstimulated if he couldn’t get it just right. Just this weekend, as they headed out the door to a new swimming class, Jack requested the iPad for the car. Diella’s response was a consistent. “No, Jack. You know we don’t use the iPad in the car.”
Avoid major triggers. If your child can’t tolerate large, noisy crowds, try to travel off peak, such as weekdays and off season. If you know your child starts to meltdown when he’s hungry, keep his favorite snacks and drinks on hand to keep him regulated. Make sure he’s had a good night’s sleep and taken a nap, or plan the travel around nap time.
Bring a bag of tricks. Never leave home without the “goody bag,” a portable sensory toolkit. Favorite go-to items that take your child from calamity to calm are a must! This kit could include a favorite blanket, fidget toys, or noise cancelling headphones if your child has noise sensitivities. Also consider favorite music CDs, DVDs and stories on tape if your child has auditory understimulation.
Take frequent breaks. If taking a long road trip, be sure to take frequent bathroom or downtime breaks. Encourage your child to engage in some physical activity for a few minutes prior to climbing back into the car seat.
Give your child quiet space. To manage stress, schedule some quiet time in the car. This is necessary for the mental health of all family members. Playing some soft music will help the whole family relax. Carry this over to the vacation, and don’t try to pack too many activities into each day. Having a safe quiet place designated where the child can go to decompress is important. When you’re preparing for the trip, try making that part of the plan.
Give yourself quiet space. There will be times when no matter how well you prepared, something will go wrong. You will feel frustrated and doubt the sanity of attempting such a trip. Try to manage your anxiety. Children with sensory challenges are often very good at picking up other people’s feelings. Take time to breathe and try to see some humor in the situation. If possible, take yourself physically away from the situation for a few minutes. Remember, this too shall pass.
Although your child may have some challenging behaviors that require a little more planning, remember, this is a family adventure, and like all adventures, there will be twists and turns. A perfect vacation is impossible. Make a note of what worked and what needs adjusting, and use this increased wisdom in your next trip. Have fun, create some magic and safe travels!
Sharon Cole is a speech-language pathologist and proud grandmother based in Albany. She is the owner of Vocally Clear Communications PLLC. Vocally Clear’s goal is to promote effective communication for all ages. She can be reached at Vocallyclear.com or message her at “British Nanny” on Facebook.