Many parents feel the pressure to plan and execute a perfect family vacation, and planning can feel complicated enough when you’re looking for the best hotels and things to do. But when you’re also trying to accommodate a child with special needs, it can quickly become overwhelming.
The good news is that the travel and hospitality industry has caught up over the last few years and is making more effort and allowances for special-needs travelers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help along the process on your own with some advance preparation.
Travel Tips for a Child with Special Needs
Talk to Your Pediatrician
Get in touch with your pediatrician to go over the details of your trip and anything else you or they might need to know in advance. Come armed with a list of questions, including whether it’s safe for your child to travel, any recommendations for doctors in your destination in case of an emergency, and any local issues to be aware of. Your doctor may have ideas that you hadn’t considered before on how to prepare for issues that range from sensory processing disorder to severe diabetes. It’s also a good way to stay on your pediatrician’s radar in case you need to put in an emergency call while you’re gone.
Consider Your Child’s Triggers
We all have triggers that stress us out, from crowded airports to loud noises. But kids with special needs may feel overwhelmed and debilitated by their own triggers, even as they’re learning better techniques to cope. For instance, if your child has a noise sensitivity, some noise-canceling headphones, a device to keep them occupied or a long road trip instead of a plane ride may be in order. Kids who have trouble handling crowds may need more time to get through the airport and a chance to step away and regroup. The more you can work around your child’s triggers, the more likely you are to find ways to soothe your child at a moment’s notice.
Need help planning an unforgettable family vacation?
That's what we do! Our Family Vacation Advisors can help you choose the right destination, book vetted kid-friendly accommodations, recommend tours and guides, and more. Click to send us a request >
There are plenty of options for kids with special needs at amusement parks, hotels and more. Disney offers a Disability Access Service (DAS) pass to help travelers with disabilities and special needs avoid long wait times. Meanwhile, hotels often have entire floors with hypoallergenic sheets, towels and cleaners for sensitive guests. Call ahead or work with a travel planner to find the best solution for your child.
Allow Extra Time
Kids with special needs typically don’t like to be rushed, whether they have a medical condition that slows them down, a physical complication that impairs mobility or a sensory-related issue. Although that doesn’t mean they want to be slowed down and forced to wait, they often need to move at their own pace. Give your family extra time, especially in crowded areas like airports, amusement parks and major attractions, so they feel they’re moving at a comfortable pace to avoid getting overwhelmed.
Bring Creature Comforts
Many children get homesick at some point during a family vacation and want a comforting item to remind them of home. But a special keepsake or toy can also help a child with special needs feel soothed and anchored during their travels. Bring along a favorite stuffed animal or toy, and remember that a familiar television show or favorite food can also make your child feel more at home and in control of their environment.
Do a Trial Run
It’s possible to stage a dry run of your family vacation with a little creativity. If you’re planning for a long road trip, go through the packing process with your child. Assure them all their special toys and snacks will be packed, show them where they will sit in the car and go over what to expect. Then take a short drive to get them comfortable with the idea, even if it means heading to the airport.
Many airports offer rehearsal programs to travelers with special needs, along with sensory rooms, to help them cope. But even if you can’t find such services and programs, you can still enter the airport and show your child how you’ll check in at the kiosk and what the security line looks like. After a little practice, they’ll feel like old pros.
Adjust Your Expectations
Even the calmest of travelers has bad days and occasional meltdowns. Remember that your special-needs child is courageous but also vulnerable. If a meltdown or issue pops up, just take a deep breath and roll with it as best you can. And remember: At the end of the day, a family vacation is supposed to be about making memories together — not perfection.