Vacation Guide for Parents of Children with Special Needs

Spring break is coming up soon, and for many families with children with special needs, this can be a week full of change and anxiety. We’ve put together a guide to make this vacation (whether at home or someplace warm) enjoyable for ALL family members. 

Preview your trip:

Child looking out of airplaneThe internet is amazing. Before leaving on any trip, I can generally check out the layout of my aircraft and see exactly where I will be sitting. I can look up the hotel and view pictures, video footage, and ratings that others have given the hotel. I know what they will serve for breakfast, where I can park, and if they have an in-room coffee pot.

Some children and youth will find it MUCH easier to enjoy a vacation spot if you make them part of your trip preview. Let them see the hotel pictures. Show them the sleeping arrangements. Check out the places you may visit and how those day trips may go. You can even write stories together about what MIGHT happen on our trip. Make sure you include plenty of words like “maybe”, “perhaps”, and “probably” so that if trip plans change, your story is still accurate.

Changes in routine:

Here’s a DIY school picture schedule from TheCraftRookie. This can be easily adapted to fit your family’s schedule.

One of the joys for some is the change in routine that vacation can bring. But for others, that change in routine is distressing.

Try to help calm the jagged nerve endings by coming up with a written or picture schedule to look at each day (find printable pictures on this website).

Carry a calendar where you can show clearly what day you are leaving, when you are returning, and something about each day you are gone. If plans change, make sure you note those new plans on the calendar and schedule. This can be very helpful.

Remember, sometimes changes in climate and surroundings can bring joy, other times NOT! Moving from long pants to shorts may be very uncomfortable for some people as the wind and sensations hit the legs differently. The restaurant oatmeal may never be able to compare to the oatmeal Dad makes each morning in the home kitchen. Trading in your TV where you know each channel and turning that into a different set of channels and networks can be difficult for some. Watch for some of these reactions.

Be prepared to take home along with you in as many forms as needed. Home oatmeal packets, a favorite TV show or movie, and a variety of clothing options might help ease the transition to a new place. If you know some of the “distress” spots from previous vacations, plan in advance. It’s possible, for example, that the hotel will share the TV station listing guide with you for your child to preview before getting to the hotel. You might be able to hold “beach day” in your living room before heading out on vacation. Practice wearing some summer clothing before you leave the house. Pull up some of the menus from restaurants you may visit and allow your child to see what might taste good from those options.

Plan a vacation photo creation:

Child taking photo with iPhoneSome individuals really enjoy being in pictures. Since many of us carry multiple devices with the option to take a photo, talk to the family about wanting to get some pictures. For some, it’s easier to pose for a picture in the sandy beach and perhaps even in the water than it is to be told to walk in the sand and get in the water. Photo creations sometimes make people a bit more bold, and it’s a wonderful way to bring back some memories.

Give choices:

When possible, think of choices individuals can make with times and activities that can be challenging.

Being able to choose allows people to feel more in control.

With you, the parent, giving the two choices, you are also creating two acceptable options to you. This might look like: “Would you like to swim in the pool or in the bathtub tonight?”, “Would you enjoy walking on the beach or shall we rent a bike?”, “Would you like to eat breakfast at the table or would you like to take it along in the car?” You can’t always offer a choice, but be creative when you can.

Think for safety:

One parent heading to Disney World had a set of t-shirts printed. It said “I have autism. If I get lost, please call (123) 456-7890. This parent knew the child would be safe even if they were parted. One parent invited to pay for a college student to join the family and help with some of the events. This gave a college student a free vacation while providing options for parents to have a “date” night and an extra pair of hands during the day. Talking to parents who have blazed this trail before can sometimes bring up great ideas for you to try.

What about you? What strategies or tips do you have for making your vacation enjoyable for the whole family?

Passionate about inclusive education? Make a contribution to All Belong to help us create inclusive communities for persons of all abilities.

Airplane photo by Steven Coffey on Unsplash

Beach photo credit: emrank,

iPhon photo by Sylwia Bartyzel on Unsplash


Barbara J. Newman photo

Barbara J. Newman is a teacher consultant and the director of church services for All Belong. 


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