Let’s be honest: traveling is exhausting under the best of circumstances. From making plans to completing the journey, it can be a challenge to keep your sanity even when you’re off on a relaxing vacation. And when you’re a parent of a child with special needs, finding the easiest and most accessible route to getting where you’re going can be that much more difficult.
With the holiday travel season coming up, we want to help you and your family navigate the uncertainty of airports or road trips in the best way possible. We’ve put together a list of tips, tools and other resources that will hopefully ease some of the difficulty you might face when traveling.
Just a heads up: This article is going to be a long one. So ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelt while the “fasten seat belt” light is on. Please refrain from walking about the cabin during takeoff and landing. Please make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their full upright position.
Just the thought of navigating an airport can raise a person’s blood pressure. Luckily, most airports are more than ready and equipped to help individuals with physical limitations and disabilities fly thanks to federal law. The Air Carrier Access Act makes that explicit:
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability. The Department of Transportation is responsible for enforcing the ACAA, which applies to all flights to, from, or within the United States.
That said, here are a few basics to consider before you get to the gate:
- There’s a reason why everyone suggests getting to the airport early. It’s the simplest thing you can do to reduce stress when traveling. You’ll feel a lot better about checking bags and getting through security if you’re not rushing to the gate before it closes.
- Bring snacks and sensory toys in your carry-on. A nice travel kit can ensure you have everything you need before you board all in one place.
- Remember: Wheelchairs, pushchairs, and other assistive devices are NOT considered luggage and don’t need to be checked. Airlines are required to help individuals stow, board, and deplane with them.
For individuals with autism, finding the right airline can be a bit tricky. Don’t worry, The Mighty have done the research for you, from calling airlines and piecing together all the information you need to know before flying with a child with ASD. Each airline is different and can serve your child in different ways. You can read the full list here.
If your child or adult has never flown before, it’s a good idea that you prepare them for the experience as much as possible. It’s important to help them understand what will be happening in airports, from security checkpoints, to a lack of personal space, to small cabins in airplanes. Airport walk-through can help a lot with that, especially if your child is on the spectrum.
There are a few United States airports that allow families to do a walk through or practice airport situation before the big travel day. There are about fifteen of them dusted throughout the U.S., and here’s a list of those.
If the airport you’re flying out of does not offer a practice session, using social stories such as this one can be a big help.
Let’s take the car!
On the surface, car travel seems a lot easier, but road trips have their own difficulties with which to tend. Your child might be more mentally comfortable in the familiar family car, but being confined to one space for hours, unable to stretch and move as boredom creeps in, can make everyone in the car a little stressed out.
Our friends at Friendship Circle have a long list of tips to help you, your child with special needs, and your family on a road trip. Here are just a few highlights:
- Make sure you plan for frequent stops as you travel! No one likes being cooped up in the car for hours, so make sure you hit the rest stops and regional oddities along the way. Even a quick trip into a strip mall or gas station can help break the monotony of car travel and give kids the physical activity they need to get through the trip.
- Limit distractions to the driver. If possible, consider sitting in the backseat with your children to keep them from getting loud or disruptive. At the very least, it’ll keep them from playing “I’m not touching you.”
- The wiggles and squirmies can sometimes get the best of kids. To keep them safe and contained, it might be a good idea to purchase a BuckleRoo, which is a small plastic seat beat cover that little escape artists can’t break out of.
One of the easiest ways to prevent tantrums is to eliminate overstimulation. Whether it’s in the car or on a plane, a good idea is to get some sensory processing toys. Check out the travel sensory kit, the sensory first aid kit, and the tactile sensory kit. They’re filled to the brim with toys and stims that can help kids decompress.
To avoid those pesky, and sometimes unexpected, ear popping situations, we recommend chewing gum or oral stimming chewies. Whether you’ll be flying in the skies or traveling through high altitudes, giving the kids something to help their ears pop can probably prevent overstimulation or confusion.
Don’t get lost!
Individuals with special needs sometimes elope or wander, which can be frightening. Keep them close to you and keep a good eye on them, especially in unfamiliar and crowded places. The newness of people and places can be overwhelming for any kid. Having strategies to help you in an elopement situation is a necessary part of vacations.
For parents worried about losing a child in a crowd, equipping them with a GPS tracking device Is a simple and discreet way to ensure your child’s safety. A medical I.D. bracelet informing others that your child is autistic or has some other special need can also offer peace of mind.
Where to stay
While choosing a hotel, a factor that you might want to consider is what accommodations they are able to provide for you and your child. While it may be difficult and frustrating to call around to hotels, it’s worth it. There are many of them that can provide equipment like shower chairs, accessible beds that are closer to the ground, or even hospital beds. Those things, however, usually need to be arranged ahead of time.
About the destination
Whether you’re going on a vacation or visiting family for the holidays, the destination can be just as important as the journey. For children with special needs, it might be a good plan of action to try to prepare them for what’s to come to the best of your ability.
Tell them where you’re going, what you’ll be doing, and how long you’ll be there. Show them pictures of the destination. If you’ll be somewhere that has sand or an ocean, it’s a great idea to acclimate them to the feelings and sights of sand, sunscreen, saltwater, or various other senses of the beach beforehand. Heading to a crowded city or amusement park? Introduce your little traveler to the loud or distracting sounds they might hear.
Bring it on home
The good news about going home is that there’s not a lot of uncertainty about traveling anymore. You and your child have gotten to the destination, all you have to do is retrace your steps and get on home. While they might know how the structure of things will transpire with the journey, they can sometimes get a bit more restless than before. Bring some of their favorite toys or electronics to keep them occupied, and hopefully things go well.
While these strategies might work for some, they may not be applicable to all. You can plan the heck out of a trip, and it still might not go as you imagined. But that’s okay! At the end of the day, what really matters is that you spend quality time together.