Family Magazine

Taking a Vacation with Special Needs Children

By Gbollard @gbollard
This is a "Best of the Best" Post.
Is there such a thing as "taking a vacation" when special needs children are involved? I know many people whose whole idea of a vacation is "any time without the kids" but aside from the respite services that some parents can take advantage of, there's little chance of that sort of holiday. Even my own parents who take the kids for a "holiday" during their school breaks have stipulated that they can only look after one child at a time. Breaks away from the kids are very rare for us.
So, if a break away from the kids isn't possible, then what happens when you take them with you?
Driving VacationsThese are cheap and easy holidays - sometimes. One of the problems that many special needs children have is that they can't stay still for very long. A driving holiday can quickly turn from a peaceful trip into a nightmare if your child decides to continually unbuckle their seatbelt, annoy their siblings or pitch a "sensory fit" because they're too hot, numb, cramped or otherwise bothered. Driving holidays can work with very young (ie: aged two or younger) or significantly older (aged 15+) special needs children but between the ages of about 3-14, they're usually not a good idea.
On one driving holiday, my son, then aged about 3, refused to get back in the car and would cry whenever we tried to take him near it. We also discovered that he'd desperately needed to use the toilet but had quietly held onto it for several hours. Unfortunately, he exploded before he reached a toilet only minutes after leaving the car at our destination. Another driving holiday became a total ruin when our son developed a middle ear infection along the way.
These days however, just driving our kids to school is an experience. They have enough fights in the 10 minute drive to school to push all thoughts of driving holidays out of our heads.
Flying VacationsThese are more successful with the 3-14 age group but obviously they're also much more expensive. That's not to say that they're without issues. There's the plane noise and vibration and even worse, there's the sudden changes in air pressure. These don't sound like much but they're usually enough to set off any sensory issues your children may have. Then of course, there's the airport with the array of anti-terrorist and anti-smuggler devices.
Do yourself a favour. Don't wait for the problems to start - declare your children upfront and you'll find that the airport staff are a whole lot more accomodating.
The best thing about flying vacations is that you're only being transported for a short while. After that, you can be settled at your destination.
Cruising VacationsWe've just learned the hard way that cruises aren't exactly suited to special needs children. In fact, the whole thing was so frightening to my 10 year old that he led my wife on a merry chase all around then inside of the terminal. He went on the boat but he went on kicking and screaming.
There are some great things about cruising, particularly the fact that they have a kids club and set routines. Unfortuantely, they also have unpredictable and/or dangerous things. In particular, they can have wild weather, large crowds, unsafe areas (low rails) and playgroup bullies. If your child suddenly decides that they don't like being on the boat, too bad. You're stuck there.
ResortsPersonally, I've found that resorts (and cosy family holidays) are the best types of holiday destinations for special needs children. Resorts have the advantage of kids clubs but obviously these areas carry the risk of bullying, unsuitable supervision and infectious disease. Check the kids club out carefully before leaving your child there.
Some resorts even have well trained special needs staff - or super-enthusiastic staff who are eager for new challenges.
Resorts with buffet are better than restaurant-only resorts because if your child is a very picky eater, they at least get a chance to try things without the obligation to eat.
The other great thing about resorts is that you don't have to keep travelling. You can stay put and allow the kids to settle into a routine - and if for some reason they dislike the resort, you can easily go visiting other places of interest instead.
Save the big trips for later.
When your special needs kids are small, the best holidays are those which provide minimal travel hassles while walking the fine line between stability of routine and the opportunity for new experiences.

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