Vacationing With Special Needs

When you are a parent planning that big family vacation, you have this vision of holding your child’s hand and strolling down Main Street right to the Cinderella Castle. Flash forward, there’s no holding hands, there’s no strolling, and your kid could care less about Cinderella or her castle!

Traveling with any child has its own set of unique challenges, but special needs children add another level to vacationing. And while we are living in the most aware society ever, you still are met with stares and judgment when your child is overwhelmed or in the middle of a meltdown.

So how can we avoid the meltdowns, and still have a fun vacation? Plan, plan, And PLAN! I know that for some of us who long for the days of spontaneity, it can be hard to be so rigid for our routine-loving child, but it can make or break a family vacation. After reading a lot of books and testing and failing some foolproof methods, we finally came across a few must-have strategies that work!


1. Routine

If your child is used to keeping a rigid schedule, throwing them in the deep end of vacationland can be rough. While of course, nothing will be exactly the same, it can be helpful to follow a loose guideline. Sleep schedules, naptimes (when applicable) and mealtimes are a must. And for some of us, on vacation that can seem daunting, I personally miss the days of laying on a raft in the pool, snacking here and there and eventually changing for dinner, but as a special needs parent, or parent in general, we all know it’s all about sacrifice!

Using a visual schedule or whiteboard is a perfect way to help them keep track of the much looser schedule and see that they will have some control over the day. Even if that is a choice between snacks or a simple choice like a splash pad or pool. These small moments of control can help balance the less structured moments of vacation.

2. Meal Prep

On the subject of food, when you are in a situation where you are grocery shopping for the week and controlling the prep, it can be a lot easier than relying on restaurants for an entire week. Regional grocery stores can differ if you have a challenging eater, plan ahead and take the special no nut butter with you, or even Amazon ship to your vacation rental! When you are on a cruise, or resort-style vacation where food is less in your control look over menus with your child and help them find choices that work for them. When our children were little I always made sure to have smaller healthier snacks that could help supplement a meal that was not their favorite. Fruit pouches, granola bars, even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can travel pretty easily, and many places allow snacks to be brought in, even Disney World, so don’t hesitate to ask about food policies if it will make or break your day! If this is an area that you know can be challenging, definitely plan ahead, waiting until everyone is past the point of famished is always a perfect recipe for disaster. When we vacation we always have a good handle on at least two food options around us, there are times that a sit-down restaurant is not going to work at that moment, and knowing where a quick service option is in a pinch can be life-changing!

3. Be Prepared

One of the things I missed the most when my children graduated from strollers was the perfect place to store all the gear that we often need to make it through a long day with a special needs child. For my sensory seeker, wearing a backpack with his own sensory items in it was often a useable tool. But after a long day of sightseeing, he would sometimes get tired of the bag, and tired of walking pretty fast. My husband is a huge fan of researching, and eventually found a great daypack that worked well for keeping water bottles, snacks and of course the sensory tools we took on any adventure, without weighing us down! Things you might find in my pack at any time would be.

  1. Camel Bak water bottle (great sensory tool, and reusable!)
  2. Theraputty, perfect for those long lines at a restaurant or rides, and keeping hands busy in a more grown-up space like a museum.
  3. Bubbles, again, cheap entertainment, but a huge sensory tool for calming an overwhelmed person. Blowing bubbles encourages a steady long exhale which studies have shown, 5 deep breaths can reset your brain.
  4. Crunchy or chewy snack- Again engaging the proprioceptive sense, a crunchy or chewy snack can help focus your child and provide the needed input.
  5. Portable battery charger, like every parent we’ve relied on our phones to help get through those rough patches where nothing else is working! Having a portable charger and cord can keep that battery fresh, and potentially save you from a meltdown after a long day and you have a long ride back to your base camp.
  6. Lightweight camping towels are perfect for unexpected spills or accidents, blocking sun or people for a visually overwhelmed kid. At Disney World, my son climbed into the stroller and used it as a little break from everyone and everything. Past the stroller age? Make a little getaway with your beach chair and camping towel!

Our family recently went on a really exciting adventure all the way to New Zealand, and I have to admit when my husband initially asked if I would want to go on this trip, my first instinct was to say no. I knew it would be difficult; the flight alone from Ohio is no joke! But when we sat down and looked at it, we felt like it could be done, and it was honestly one of our best vacations ever. Don’t let the fear of the unknown make the decisions, get out there and get adventuring with your amazing child. They can do it, and you can too!