11 Tips for a Great Vacation With Your Special Needs Child

It Takes a Little Extra Work, But It's Worth It!

Happy family walking with fun on sunset sea beach
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Summer vacations are a great change of pace. You can sleep in, eat different foods, see new places, visit people you haven't seen in ages (or spend quality time with people while sharing living quarters). Unfortunately, while change is refreshing for most people, it can be overwhelming for kids with special needs. The result: Time that should be fun and relaxing can become stressful and even emotionally exhausting.

Fortunately, however, it really is possible to plan a terrific vacation with your special needs child. You'll need to put in a little extra work (especially ahead of time), but in the long run, both you and your child will benefit. Not just this year, but for years to come!

What Special Needs Kids Need to Survive and Thrive

For many kids with special needs, structure and consistency are key for daily success. Perhaps just as important are accommodations, either formal or informal, that reduce sensory challenges, lower a few barriers, or simplify certain tasks. With structure, consistency, and accommodations in place, life is mostly manageable. Without them, not so much:

  • Structure: For kids with special needs, life can be baffling. They may have a hard time recognizing patterns, making sense of elapsed time, or managing their own schedules. When structure is imposed—in the form of alarm clocks, class buzzers, regular after-school activities, and evening routines—life makes more sense. It's much easier to function in a world that's structured, predictable, and routinized.
  • Consistency: In addition to structure, consistency can make kids with special needs feel that they're in control of their world. This decreases stress and anxiety which, in turn, decreases emotional outbursts and upsets. Consistency will vary for different kids, but may mean, for example, the same foods each day, the same videos at the same time, the same kind of soap in the bath, the same chores, the same noise level, or even the same smells.
  • Accommodations: Schools may provide formal accommodations for your child with special needs. For example, they may use incandescent rather than fluorescent lights in his classroom to lessen sensory challenges. They may give her more time to complete tests, or offer adaptive gym programs. At home, you may support your child by ensuring she has access to the TV when she is winding down from school. You may cut all the tags out of his clothing. Or you may buy special foods to be sure she'll have nutritious options that she'll find acceptable.

When special needs kids have all these elements in place, they are far more likely to succeed both at home and at school. Life may be challenging, but at least it's manageable.

But when kids with special needs feel that life is unmanageable, they act out; when they act out they themselves are emotionally overwhelmed which, in turn, can overwhelm their caregivers.

Why Vacation Can Be So Tough for Kids With Special Needs and Their Families

Vacation, for most of us, means putting away structure, consistency, and accommodations. It means spontaneity, trying new things, taking risks. It may mean staying with new people or in challenging settings such as campgrounds.

It almost certainly means that routines, schedules, and accommodations are set aside for a period of time. Instead of the comforts of home and school, your child is suddenly expected to manage a world of chaos, with expectations that may be beyond the abilities of a child with executive functioning, cognitive, emotional, social, and/or sensory challenges.

Sure, most kids can handle change. But imagine telling your child with special needs, at the last minute, that he'll be expected to:

  • share a room with cousin Billy who plays loud music
  • eat food he doesn't like without complaining
  • spend extra time at the beach or the playground even when his favorite TV show is on
  • cope with bug bites or sunburn, even when they really itch or hurt
  • sit still at a restaurant for an hour or more, even when they finished their food long ago
  • be nice to people he doesn't especially like
  • say "yes" to activities that hold no appeal for him

In theory, kids should be able to manage this level of expectation. For many kids, it's simply not possible.

Because the expectations surrounding vacation can send some kids with special needs into emotional chaos, some parents skip family vacations altogether. Others dread vacations, knowing that siblings, grandparents, or strangers will judge and condemn their child and, by proxy, their parenting. And yet others power through vacations, forcing their special needs child to "suck it up," and creating negative memories and anxieties for a lifetime.

Luckily, none of these options are necessary. It really is possible to have a positive family vacation with some forethought, preplanning, and flexibility.

Tips for a Great Vacation With Your Special Needs Child

Your special needs child needs structure, consistency, and accommodations. You crave novelty, spontaneity, and relaxation. Can you get both? The answer is yes, with a few limits. Here are some tips for making it work.

  1. Choose a vacation plan that you and your child can live with. If you have a child with special needs, a freeform adventure vacation with no set plan is a recipe for disaster. If spontaneity is important to you but overwhelming for your child, consider taking a separate adventure vacation, or hiring a babysitter for a day while you go exploring. Alternatively (and even better), prepare your child for a short open-ended adventure that expands his horizons without overwhelming him.
  2. Keep it simple. Consider staying in one place rather than moving around. Stick with one activity per day. Why wear everyone out when the whole point is to relax?
  3. Leave your anxieties at home. What if your child with special needs acts out in public? What if your mother-in-law makes snide remarks about your parenting skills? What if one of the activities you've planned is too much for your child? The reality is that few of these issues are serious enough to ruin a vacation, so why ruin your mood in advance?
  4. Have a comfortable place to retreat to. Many families love to vacation together. While that can be fun with a special needs child, it can also get overwhelming. One good option is to say "yes" to the family retreat, but "no" to the idea of actually staying in the same house. That way, if your child needs a break or you want to create a more familiar home-like structure you can do so without creating a storm of negative comments or concerns.
  5. Plan at least a few activities your child will love. Many special needs children love tradition and repetition. Give in to that for some small part of your vacation. Say "yes" to playing that same putt-putt course yet again, or having the same ice cream at the same place even if it was just "meh." Having special events to look forward too can make it much easier to get through tougher moments.
  6. Bring along accommodations. If you know your child will struggle without his favorite TV show and you're not sure about cable reception, bring a DVD and DVD player for insurance. If your child needs sensory toys, special sheets, pillows, foods, or comfort items, bring them along. If someone questions you or suggests you're babying your child, ignore them. They don't know your child's needs the way you do.
  7. Always have a Plan B. Your child with special needs may have a terrific time doing a particular activity, or he may fall apart completely and have a temper tantrum. If things do fall apart, have a Plan B in place so that other members of your party won't feel their day has been ruined. For example, if other children are included in the group, know in advance which adult will handle your special needs child and which will take charge of the rest of group. If you really need to leave early, have a plan for where you'll go and how you'll meet up again later.
  8. Be fair to one another. No matter how carefully you plan ahead, there may be a good chance that someone will need to change their plans to accommodate a special needs child. If possible, be sure that both parents take turns staying home, leaving the restaurant early, or coping with judgmental relatives. Do your very best to be sure that everyone, siblings and parents included, get a chance to enjoy time doing what they like best. Sure, they may have to accommodate a special needs family member, but that shouldn't ruin their vacation.
  9. Prepare your vacation-mates. If you're vacationing with friends or relatives who don't know your child well, give them a heads-up about what to expect, what they can do to make life easier for you and your child, how to engage your child, and what to do if something comes up. An email note is a good way to communicate information in an informal and non-confrontational way. Keep it light: "Billy sometimes decides to eat peanut butter and jelly instead of the prepared meal. Please don't be offended: you're a great cook, but eating familiar foods can help Billy feel at home in a strange place."
  10. Be flexible. If your child with special needs gets upset if he's caught in the rain, consider putting off an outing until the rain is over. If he's having a great day, think about extending it even if your schedule says it's time to go home.
  11. Prepare your child with special needs. This is probably the most important advice in this article! Your child with special needs will almost certainly be better able to relax and enjoy the vacation with you if she is prepared.

Here are some tips for preparing your child for a vacation:

  • Create a "social story" explaining where you're going and what you'll be doing. If possible, use real photographs of the people and places. Read it together early and often.
  • Talk about your plans with your child, sharing and emphasizing the positive. Keep it as simple as necessary. For example, "when we get to the beach you'll get to splash me!"
  • Consider using a reward system for great behavior. For example, "If you can sit with us at the restaurant until everyone is finished, you can watch an episode of your favorite TV show."
  • Have a plan for each day, and go over the plan at breakfast. Use visual schedules to help your child make sense of and remember what you have in mind.

Lastly: Relax! Remember that you're on vacation. The whole point is to have fun. So relax, do what works, and remember that your positive, relaxed attitude can make all the difference!

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