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Vacation Planning and Special Needs

Families who have kids with special needs need a special travel plan.

The family vacation: a time for kids and parents to connect away from the stresses of daily life. When you’ve got a child with special needs, however, taking a family vacation can seem like an unreachable goal.

“For a lot of the families I work with, just the anxiety of the thought of traveling has kept them from taking a vacation, but they need that family time,” says Maria Vetter, education consultant and advocate at Frankel & Kershenbaum special needs law firm in Bryn Mawr, PA. “I’ve never met a child, from the lowest-functioning to the most anxiety-filled, who is not able to travel.”

Understanding a Child's Special Limits

“Short story,” says Heidi Mizell. “When we were at Disney World, a family ahead of us in line for the Dumbo ride had a child with autism, and Mom didn’t want to strap him in. The Disney employee explained that the ride couldn’t go without this young man being strapped in, so Mom gave in. Then the ride starts and she undoes the strap. They shut down the ride and without saying why asked everyone to get off. They didn’t make a spectacle of the family, but this mom knew she wrecked it for everyone. Sometimes our families have to recognize that the presentation of autism is not an excuse to take chances with safety or compromise others’ enjoyment.

The key, says Heidi Mizell, Autism Delaware’s resource coordinator and a parent of an adult child with autism, is to plan accordingly and understand your child’s limitations. When traveling over the years with her own son, “We tried to make things as fun as possible, giving him time to wind down, commending him on a job well done when he hung in longer than we thought he could and making sure he had items that would allow for ‘tuning out’ when needed.”

Choosing a destination that's right for kids with special needs 

Mizell has successfully taken her son on vacations to locations as diverse as Walt Disney World, Italy and Israel. When selecting a destination, Vetter suggests families tap into their personal network and follow in the footsteps of parents whose kids share their own child’s condition. “Talk to families who have had successful vacations accommodating your child’s challenges,” she says. “Think, ‘If they can do it, so can we.’ ”

Start small, with an overnight or two at the shore or in the Poconos, then “branch out” for a longer period of time.

Flying with kids with special needs

Once you’ve decided where to go, you’ve got to get there. For kids with autism, flying can prove a daunting obstacle, one Bryn Mawr-based developmental pediatrician Wendy Ross, MD, says can be overcome. Dr. Ross has conducted national flying-with-autism clinics as the founder of AIR (Autism Inclusion Resources), coaching not only families of kids on the spectrum to fly successfully but also training airline and TSA staffers to be sensitive to the social cognitive difficulties such children may exhibit at the airport and on a plane. 

“The biggest thing families can do is to prepare as much as possible,” she says. That preparation starts with savvy flight booking. “Avoid flights known for business travel on smaller commuter planes; commuters will be less tolerant of your kids crying,” Dr. Ross explains.

Prior to your departure date, call TSA Cares (1-855-787-2227), an assistance hotline for travelers with disabilities, at least 72 hours before your flight time, to ensure that trained airport staff will help you navigate security, show you to a quiet waiting area and assist with boarding.

Dr. Ross recalls one 6-foot-2, nonverbal teenager with autism who did fine up until the point when he had to step over the gap between gate and the plane itself. Forewarned that the young man would be a passenger, the flight captain came out to cover the gap with his jacket, allowing the teen to feel safe as he
boarded and averting a public meltdown.

For the flight itself, Dr. Ross recommends that parents bring an emergency bag filled with favorite snacks and distractions. If your child likes to play on an iPad or listen to music, prepare her for the fact that she’ll likely have to turn off electronics during certain parts of the flight. If the sensory aspects of flying become overwhelming, turn to the flight attendants; many have allowed parents of kids with autism to use their curtained seating area as a private calming spot.

Vacationing with kids with special needs

Just like the airlines, many hotels and venues offer accommodations for physical, medical and dietary needs, so call ahead and explain your situation for optimal assistance, says Vetter. “The anxiety decreases when you know there are people who understand your child’s needs.”

Past prepping travel professionals to expect the unexpected, “Try to bring your routine with you,” she continues. “Kids like the predictability of home and can be uncomfortable when they get out of their routine. Plan a social story that shows them where they will go, what will happen: ‘You’ll still eat lunch at this time, go to bed at that time. Here’s how vacation’s going to be different from home and here’s what will be the same.’

“Bring the comforts of home, certain toys, a blanket,” says Vetter. “Being in a totally new environment can be daunting to a kid, let alone a kid with disability.” And because “a lot of kids don’t wear their disabilities,” also have a doctor’s note with you in case you need it as proof to, say, move to the head of a ride line at a theme park or to ensure dietary restrictions are adhered to at a restaurant.

Lastly, “Think of the worst-case scenario and have a plan to get past it,” Vetter concludes. “If you get on that plane and your child starts to have a meltdown, think how you calm him at home. ‘We use a blanket, put on headphones.’ You can do those same things on a plane. Knowing you have a way to solve a problem that hasn’t occurred yet decreases anxiety” . . . and increases the odds of a successful family vacation.

Special Needs Travel Resources

Along with Wendy Ross' AIR and TSA Cares, here are some other special needs travel resources to be aware of.

ASD Vacations

ASD Vacations is a travel agency that specifically serves families with relatives on the spectrum.

Autistic Globetrotting

Autistic Globetrotting offers a plethora of information on traveling with a child with autism.

Autism on the Seas

Autism on the Seas is a travel website specializing in cruises for adults and families living with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities. It also offers a wealth of information on travel tips. 

Autistic Traveler

This blog provides tips for traveling with autism

Disabled Travelers

This resource website dedicated to accessible travel information provides listings of travel agencies, tour operators, adventure travel companies and more that specialize in travel for people with special needs.

The Guided Tour

PA-based travel agency that offers people with developmental and physical challenges opportunities for personal growth, recreation and socialization through travel.

Hammer Travel

This travel agency provides opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities. 

Trips INC.

This travel agency serves families dealing with a variety of disabilities

Walt Disney World

Disney provides a large variety of services for people with a wide range of disabilities. On Disney’s website, you can find a trip planner PDF for guests with cognitive disabilities including autism. Disney also provides a Disability Access Service (DAS) Card to guests who cannot wait in line due to a disability. Guests using this service receive a return time ticket for a ride so they will not have to wait. For more info, email Disability.Services@DisneyParks.com or call 407-560-2547.

For more ideas on special needs travel, check out this 2010 MK article.

MK co-op student Brittany E. Hair compiled the list of special needs travel resources.

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