Have Special Needs, Will Travel

Michelle TravelI love to travel and always imagined that having kids would not much slow me down.  Then my husband and I took a trip with Science Kid while I was pregnant with Word Boy.  We did not yet know was that less than a year later Science Kid would be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but the trip made it clear that travel would not be something easy with our oldest son.

I’m a planner but having a child with special needs takes it to a whole new level.   I find that traveling with a child with special needs requires as much logistical planning as deploying a brigade!

6 Travel Tips That Every Parent of a Special Needs Child Needs to Know

1. Ensure You Have all Necessary Medical Prescriptions, Equipment, and Special Food

Talk to your child’s doctor about carrying a prescription if you will be flying and needing to hand carry prescriptions and medical equipment.  Consider whether medication needs to remain refrigerated.

We traveled 15 hours from the east coast to Alaska while keeping Word Boy’s reflux medication cold.

For peer to peer support in managing this, check out Military Special Needs Support. Their Facebook page is a particularly good place to ask questions from others who have been there, done that.

2. Research Your Destination

That disastrous trip we took when Science Kid was a toddler taught us that we need to keep his sensory issues in mind.  On that trip, we stayed in one house where the TV was always too loud and he spent the whole visit trying to escape the house.  At the time, we did not understand how much loud noise affected him.  Now, I make sure to research where we are going thoroughly, and I have a list of possible activities or restaurants in case it becomes clear one won’t work.  

A couple years ago, we spent a lovely long weekend in Seward, Alaska.  The whole trip had gone off without a single hitch.  On our last day, we decided to have breakfast in a coffee shop recommended by a friend which doubled as an art gallery.  We walked in, and Science Kid immediately started pulling on his ears and humming, sure signs he was overstimulated.

I stopped and tried to see the coffee shop as he did: the smell of coffee was strong and could be overpowering if you did not love the smell as much as me, the building was an old church so the sound of the bean grinder and conversation echoed, the walls were hung with art which could be overwhelming visually.  We turned around and walked out; there were other places to eat that would not risk a meltdown.

3. Maintain Sleep Rituals

Not once but twice we made the mistake of not realizing how reliant our children are on sleep rituals.

Make a list of all those things  your children need to sleep and bring them.  The days of traveling light are over, but it is worth it to get sleep.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Accommodations

It is not weak to admit your special needs child might need accommodations.  If you are carrying a large amount of medical equipment on a plane, ask for disability boarding. Disney World offers a Guest Assistance Card which makes accommodations based on disability, for example allowing a child with autism to enter a ride from an alternate gate with a smaller crowd.

Before assuming that accommodations exist, always call the destination and ask what to expect and what type of proof you need to bring if the disability is an invisible one, such as autism.

5. Plan For The Worst, Hope For The Best

We have had vacations that have gone off without many problems, and we have had ones where nothing seemed to go right.  We do know a few things before we even leave.  No matter how well the vacation goes, we will all come home exhausted.

Even if the boys cooperate while out of town, we will have behavioral problems when we return home.  Sleep will be an issue, either while on vacation or after returning home.

We have been surprised when things go well, but it helps to not set our expectations too high. 

6.  The More Your Travel, The Easier It Gets

This could also be called learning from your mistakes.  That early disastrous trip with Science Kid taught us a lot about how to make travel work for us.  With each trip, our boys get more used to having their schedule disrupted and my husband and I get better at learning how to help our children adjust to travel.

In the words of Anthony Bourdain, the TV personality who hosted No Reservations on the Travel Channel, “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” Those words from his last episode of No Reservations should apply to special needs families, too.


  1. Something I would add – don’t let the horror stories scare you off! I use an electric wheelchair and even when I was little my parents weren’t afraid to take me places. It makes me so sad to hear people who have little kids say “We wanted to go to Disney, but we just KNOW the airport will break the wheelchair/lose things/etc”.
    Yes, of course that’s a possibility but if you treat the TSA people with respect and stress to them how important certain things are, they’re going to do their best to ensure nothing like that happens.
    Of course that’s just an example, I’m just saying don’t let the naysayers scare you off! This was a great post 🙂


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