Prepare for Success When Traveling with Your Child with Special Needs
Whether you’re driving or flying, traveling has a unique way of causing exorbitant amounts of stress. You worry if you’ve packed all the essentials and you play out every possible disaster scenario in your head. Traveling with any child is a game of chance as to how they will react, but for your child with special needs, you’ll need to do a little more preparing to get from point A to point B.
Prepare Your Child
For many children with special needs, any sort of change in routine can be unsettling. Prepare your child for the trip by talking about it for weeks ahead of time. Review the travel process from beginning to end, and show pictures of travel-related things like the airport, airplanes, cars, and your final destination. Social stories can help. A few to use or refer to as you make your own:
• “Social Story: Riding in the Car for Road Trips” by Project Autism
• “Airport Social Stories” from the Philadelphia International Airport
• “Going on an Airplane” form AbilityPath.org
• “Social Story: Airplane Ride” from Everyday Adventures
As you go over the parts of the trip so your child knows what to anticipate, do some anticipating yourself of possible trouble spots. You know your child better than anyone else. Think of difficult times in the past and what you could have done differently. Plan things like time of departure, which airport, rest stops on a driving trip, and sensory preferences in clothing and carry-ons so that they’re least likely to trip your trip up.
Prepare a Checklist
Keeping all those details that are specific to your child in mind along with all your travel facts and figures is a challenge in itself. It’s all too easy to forget something important. If you maintain a running list that you can mark off as you go, you’ll feel more at ease and know you’re covering all the bases. If you aren’t a fan of paper checklists, consider using a checklist app,
Include on your checklist everything you’ll need to bring, including medications, medical equipment, and safety restraints, and plenty of items to entertain, distract, and comfort. If you use a paper checklist, keep it in a clear plastic pouch with all your travel documents so you can put your hands on everything you need in one place.
Prepare for Packing
Of course, if you’re traveling to your destination by car, you’ll have a lot more freedom when it comes to packing; you can take whatever will fit in your vehicle. If you’re flying, however, you’re at the mercy of the TSA carry-on rules or the airlines and their costly checked bag policies. Pack all items your child needs direct access to in your carry-on bag, such as medication (with extra prescription), special equipment, snacks, toys, familiar items, and a change of clothes in case of an accident.
If your child requires mobility assistance such as a wheelchair, call the airline prior to travel to request special assistance, such as pre-boarding and deplaning, as well as to make sure the device is approved.
Prepare with Apps
There are a lot of great travel apps to choose from that can assist you with your trip, whether it’s by plane or car. Travel apps can help you manage your travel information, plan a route, determine the best gas prices, know where to stop for lunch, assess what the traffic is like, or decide what to do during a long layover.
There are even apps specifically designed to help you find accessible spots while traveling, including Access Earth and It’s Accessible. And you’ll likely want to load up on apps to keep your child busy. If you’ll be depending on apps to get you through your trip, though, don’t forget to add chargers to your checklist!
Prepare to Keep Your Cool
For special needs parents and families, there may be worry about how your child will be perceived while on the road. You live with your child’s disability every day and know exactly what to expect and what settings will cause obstacles, but this can be difficult for other travelers to understand. However, it is important to show children that it is okay to step outside their comfort zone, and having a disability is an opportunity, not a limitation. Keep in mind the reason for your travel — a fun family memory.
Whether you’re stuck in traffic or stuck in an airport, getting angry will not help your situation and could upset your child. If you find your irritation levels rising, take lots of deep breaths, take a walk, or try to focus on the fun that lies ahead. Your child will likely take an emotional cue from you; give into stress, and you may set your child off-balance for the next leg of your journey.
Remember, no trip will be perfect. Use it as a fun learning experience and before you know it, you’ll be a travel pro.