Traveling with your special needs child

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By: Gary Feldman, M.D., medical director, Stramski Children’s Developmental Center, Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach

Spring kicks off the season of travel, but for families who have a child with special needs, traveling can seem more like work than a vacation. Instead of avoiding the family trip this year, make a plan to help prepare your child for a vacation that’s fun and manageable.

Map Out Your Plan

It’s important to prepare your child for what they will see and experience. Walk through your vacation step by step and determine what sights, processes or experiences might be new.

Once you’ve mapped out your plan, explain to your child that there will be a change in their routine. Do this verbally and visually.

  • Show your child photos of your destination, as well as photos of the mode of transportation you will take.
  • Take out your suitcase and practice packing.
  • If you’re staying at a hotel, explore the hotel grounds and rooms online.

As part of your planning, contact the hotel or potential locations your family will visit to see if they accommodate children with special needs. Consider factors like long lines and crowded spaces into your plan.

Each child is different and may need more or less time to prepare for a vacation. You know your child best and can decide what timing works.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you’re planning on flying, there are extra steps you can take to help familiarize your child with the airport and flying process.

  • Take a drive by your local airport. Your child will have the opportunity to visualize the location, watch the planes take off and get used to the noise.
  • Search for online videos of the airport security process and watch them with your child so they get used to the screening concept.

Are We There Yet?

Long road trips present additional challenges for children with special needs. Before the drive, identify your child’s triggers and plan activities and breaks that will help alleviate anxiety.

  • Keep your child occupied with a variety of activities for the car ride.
  • Practice some distraction techniques before the trip, so you know what works for your child.
  • If your child has sensory issues, bring a pair of noise cancelling head phones or build breaks into your route.
  • Pack snacks or plan stops for food along the way.
  • Involve your child’s siblings by preparing them for potential challenges and encouraging supportive and appropriate behavior using incentives.

Have a Plan B, C, D and E

No matter how much you prepare, it is unlikely that everything will go as perfectly as planned. When the unexpected happens, have a backup plan in place. Depending on your child’s interests, arm yourself with a toolbox of distractions that can be used at a moment’s notice. Most importantly, remember to take it one step at a time.

The Stramski Children’s Developmental Center at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital       Long Beach cares for children with behavioral and developmental conditions, such as autism, Down syndrome and more. To learn more about the supportive care offered at the         Stramski Center, call (562) 728-5034 or visit MillerChildrens.org/Stramski.