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How to Travel With Your Special Needs Kid

Hoping to travel by car with your special needs child without major meltdowns? Success begins long before departure day.


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Hitting the road for summer vacation? Family road trips are fun and all (and easy on the budget), but they can be challenging with kids in tow. Seriously, how many times can they ask “Are we there yet?” And when you have a special needs kid in the mix, it gets even harder.

The good news: Your next adventure can be a lot less bumpy—with fewer upsets—if you take the right steps. The key is to start planning way before you even load up the car.

 “People don’t always plan ahead for behavior,” says Lisa Ahern, PhD, the director of psycho-educational services at The Center for Emotional Health in Princeton and Cherry Hill and past director of The Learning Disorders Clinic at Duke University. “We do our 'hope for the best' parenting on a vacation, but that’s really the time you need to be most aware of what behavior you want to see and communicate that.”

The Game Plan

Many special needs children get uncomfortable when there’s a change in routine during a trip, says Eric Hollander, MD, director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Montefiore Health System in New York City. “This can lead to meltdowns or temper tantrums that can be distressing, embarrassing and hard to manage in public settings,” he says. “That’s why it’s very helpful to review travel plans in advance with your child—including where to go, how to get there and what to do.”

Here are some steps you can take: 

•  Carefully plot your route—including all stops—using visual aids like maps and a calendar so kids can refer to them, give their opinions and know what to expect. Make sure you have addresses and approximate travel times for each place so there are no major surprises. 

•  Let your special needs kid and her siblings help with the details. “Give them some choices and the chance to have more control so they’re less likely to get upset if things take a long time or they don’t get something they want,” says Ahern. Besides learning to be patient, your kids will figure out how to read a map and search for points of interest, according to Lorna d’Entremont, the Canada-based co-owner of kidcompanions.com, a sensory childrens’ line.

•  Prep for anticipated situations ahead of time and try role-playing with your child.

 •  Explain your expectations for behavior on the trip and write down a few short, simple rules—i.e. stay close to me, sit quietly—on little note cards that can be used for practice.

•  Figure out what rewards you’ll give her for good behavior—like extra sprinkles on her ice cream if she sits quietly, suggests Ahern.

•  Talk to your child well before you leave about places that are likely to have big crowds, from rest stops to amusement parks, since overstimulation is a major issue for many special needs kids. Say, “When we go to this place, there are going to be a lot of people and new things going on, so it’s important to stay close to me.” 

•  Make sure you’re clear about how much time things will take. ADHD kids, for example, tend to get impatient and anxious quickly unless they have a clear picture in their heads. Write it all down on a white board or a piece of paper, or use a visual schedule-maker or an app on your phone to help illustrate the timeline. Then verbalize it for them as you go through it together.

Where to Go

•  Take shorter trips before setting out on a long one, says Dr. Hollander. Start by choosing a spot that’s a two-to-three-hour car ride away. 

•  Think about doing a day trip or staying overnight. “Consider whether your child’s sleep schedule would allow you to go and come back in the same day or whether you might need to spend the night,” says Ahern. “Think about whether stopping and staying at a hotel to break up longer trips would benefit your child or if he might do better with fewer transitions to new environments.”

•  Choose places like Disney that cater to special needs kids. Disney has access tailor-made for them so you can avoid long lines. Look into the days set aside for special needs children at some locations and plan to go then.

•  Pick destinations where you have more control over crowds, wait time and noise level. Avoid places where you’re going to be in the sun for too long without shade or a break.

•  Know what your kid is scared of and stay away from spots that might frighten her. “There are some kids who have very specific fears, like of mascots or characters,” Ahern says. 

What to Bring

•  Noise-canceling headphones or earplugs, but make sure your kid gets used to wearing them before you go. 

•  Extra medication and an extra prescription  in case you lose her medicine. You’ll need a physical perscription to refill ADHD medication, for example.

•  ID bracelets with your contact information and your child’s specific condition (“autistic” or “suffers from anxiety”), advises d’Entremont. “This is especially important if you have a runner or wanderer,” she says.

•  Anything they need to help them sleep—a white noise machine (or download an app on your phone if that’s easier), favorite pillow, stuffed animal, book or pair of pajamas.

•  Notebooks with unlined paper for trip journals.

•  Tablets and phones with chargers and backups.

•  Books on tape and CDs of their favorite songs.

•  Coloring books and crayons or markers if your child likes to color. (Be sure to tailor the in-car activity items to their specific interests.)

•  For kids who have sensory issues, bring things to chew, squeeze or touch for comfort.

The Grub

•  If your child is on a special diet, make sure to bring enough of the foods he can eat. If you can’t pack a complete supply, find out where you can buy groceries to stick to his diet.

•  Take plenty of familiar snacks for the car ride, along with enough water, but avoid anything that might make him hyper or anxious.

•  Be sure to scope out restaurants along your route that have seats with restraints, wheelchair access if you need it, and fully equipped bathrooms with proper changing stations for younger kids. Some major chains are all set up, but double-check that the ones at your planned stops have what you need to make your kid comfortable.

What to Do on the Road

•  Take frequent breaks. 

•  Play games that have you interacting with your child, like “I Spy.” 

•  Make sure everyone in the car agrees on what music is playing and how loud it can be. If your special needs child is more comfortable listening to his own device, allow for that.

•  Stick as closely to your kid’s regular routine as possible to ensure she’s comfortable in new surroundings. 

•  Be aware of how close to the road you’re parking, especially if you have a child who’s inclined to wander off.

The Siblings

•  Plan some activities for your special needs child and some for your other kids, even if the special needs sibling can’t participate.

•  Talk to your non-special needs children ahead of time, saying something like, “There are some things that are a lot harder for your brother than for you. We’ll have to help him, and he’ll need some things you don’t need,” suggests Ahern. Since siblings may feel like the special needs brother or sister gets away with more, encouraging them to be your helpers can soften any envy that crops up.

Trouble-Shooting

•  Know your kid’s triggers and avoid them at all costs. Teach her skills ahead of time to help her handle those situations better. 

•  Keep snacks readily available. Meltdowns are more likely to happen when kids are hungry, tired or overstimulated. 

•  Distract him. “If a child becomes upset due to a deviation in his expectations, helping him switch gears to some other meaningful activity, like drawing in a coloring book, can be helpful,” says Dr. Hollander. 

•  Remind your child of how you expect her to behave by asking, “What are the rules while we’re at the rest stop?” Then shower her with praise when she follows them: “I like how you’re holding my hand in the parking lot.”

•  Make up a game to play while you stop: “Let’s count the restaurants at this rest area and see how many different colors we can find on the signs!”

•  Once a meltdown starts, crouch down to get on your child’s level and move him to a more private area if possible.

•  Remind yourself that tantrums happen and many parents won’t judge you because they’ve been there themselves.

•  Take slow, deep breaths and count to five if you feel angry or anxious and are inclined to snap at your child. It helps clear your head and respond more appropriately.

•  Try to have your child match your breathing. Hold her hand, hug her and let her know you’re there to help.

•  When she calms down, compliment her: “You did a good job making yourself feel better.”

•  In the throes of a full-on meltdown, tell him you want to help him work it out, identify the cause, empathize and redirect his attention. “I know you wanted a balloon and you’re disappointed that they don’t have any more. Now that you’re calm, let’s go to the restroom and then you can pick what kind of snack you want.”

•  Sometimes returning to the car for a few minutes to calm down may be best. 

Of course, all special needs kids are different, with their own sensitivities and triggers, so it’s important to tailor all this to your child. Talk to your doctor or specialist for advice before you go.

And remember: No amount of planning can account for the surprises that pop up on a family trip, whether you have special needs kids or not. So expect the unexpected—and abandon the plan here and there if you have to. In other words, go with the flow!

    —Additional reporting by Liza Burby

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