Summer Tips for Traveling with a Disabled Child

Barry M. Prizant, PhD, CCC-SLP, is among the world’s leading authorities on autism, with more than forty years of experience as a scholar, researcher, and international consultant. He is an adjunct professor at Brown University and coauthor of The SCERTS Model: A Comprehensive Educational Approach, now being implemented in more than a dozen countries. Dr. Prizant has published more than 120 articles and chapters and has received many awards. The author of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, Dr. Prizant lives in Cranston, Rhode Island, with his wife, Dr. Elaine Meyer, and their teenage son.

FamilyonBeach_400Summer’s coming! For most families, this means looking forward to special times with the kids, unique adventures, and days filled with fun and joyful activities. However, when there is a youngster with a disability in the family, parents most often have to take extra steps to ensure that a summer vacation is more joyful than stressful for both the child and the family. Learn these tips and more in my book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism.

Summer vacations may pose difficulties for a family that has a special needs child, as the differences from the rest of the school year may be significant and therefore, confusing to a child with developmental challenges. First, there is a dramatic change in routine from typical days during the school year, and in most cases, schedules are less predictable and less structured, with more unexpected events and unfamiliar places.

Changes may also occur in basic rhythms in life–changes in morning routines, bedtimes and meal times. Even the types of foods may vary significantly from typical meals during the school year. These factors, along with the excitement of stimulating environments filled with noises and crowds may have a cumulative impact on a child that results in increased anxiety, irritability and confusion.

Does this mean avoid a summer vacation and special activities? Certainly not! There are some special precautions and supports that parents may use to make a vacation more fun and relaxing, creating wonderful memories for all family members. Here are some tips that will help most families have a great time in the summer.

      • Minimize the transitions across the course of a vacation. Most children do better with a home base that becomes predictable and comfortable. Rather than changing places too frequently, unpack and settle into a familiar comfortable setting that may be the launching point for day trips. Alternating busy days out with more relaxing days also prevents fatigue, which can lead to irritability and burn-out. If travel involves a significant time change, have a “settle-in” day rather than diving into exciting activities too quickly.
      • Be realistic and keep it simple. Do not plan too much within a day and build in breaks. There often is the temptation to try to cram too many activities into one day, which may result in too many transitions. Fewer activities with breaks for an afternoon siesta or late afternoon swim allows for a more relaxed pace. When energy levels of family members vary, “divide and conquer” with some going their own way for part of the day.
      • Increase predictability by reviewing upcoming activities and preparing everyone for transitions. A morning discussion accompanied by photos or other visual supports helps kids to anticipate and predict what is coming next during the day. A picture schedule may also ease transitions during the next day. As it becomes time to leave a favorite activity such as swimming, prepare for the transition with verbal reminders and countdowns, and talk about the fun activities that will follow. In the evening, discuss possible activities for the next day.

    • When planning activities, offer choices whenever possible. A sense of control helps a child be better regulated emotionally, and supports enthusiasm, motivation and participation. Alternating choices amongst family members also provides a sense of fairness and a team spirit. When necessary, use photos or picture symbols to help a child make choices. For older and more capable children, include them in the initial and ongoing stages of planning a family trip or vacation.
    • Bring supports and activities that your child can focus on and that help to maintain a calm state. Favorite comfort objects and toys (stuffed animals, Rubik’s cube), iPad, noise-dampening headphones will help your child when there is a need to wait and sit, or on when on airplanes or in a car. Giving your child time and space to engage in solitary activities is often helpful.
    • Eat healthfully. Avoid the temptation to indulge in fast foods that may result in digestive problems and increase activity levels and irritability, such as too many sweets, processed, and fried foods. Try to establish a predictable meal schedule with healthy snacks available throughout the day to maintain a positive emotional state. Many children with special needs have food sensitivities and allergies, and hunger is a major source of difficult behavior.
    • Choose times for participating in activities to avoid crowds, long queues, and other complications. When eating in restaurants, go at times when it is less crowded, and choose tables away from the action. A picnic lunch or a barbecue are great alternatives to waiting in line or being immersed in an overly stimulating environment. When you choose to eat out, bring table top activities (see #5 above) and plan regular walking breaks if needed. If you need special accommodations such as seating arrangements, do not hesitate to let the host know when you check in. For theme parks and recreational facilities, inquire about available supports such as quiet lounges for breaks, strollers, preferential seating and passes that provide quick access to rides and other events

The following questions may be helpful to ask every day. Of course, the specific way we support a child’s understanding depends on his developmental abilities:

  • Does your child know about the schedule of activities for the day?
  • Does he/she know how long certain activities will last, and what will follow?
  • Are there times of day that can be identified for “relax” or “down time.” Are there places that your child can go to relax for his or her downtime?
  • Does your child have choices, whenever appropriate, to participate in activities or stay at the hotel, or other places you are staying, rather than going out to activities?

With good planning before and during a family vacation, all family members can come away a lifetime of memories that will be cherished for many years.

Learn more about Uniquely Human, a groundbreaking, 2-hour online course from Barry Prizant!

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