My husband, Rod, and I wanted our children to experience traveling and memorable vacations. While it wasn’t cheap, easy or restful, we tried to give them quality family travel experiences in spite of the six of us in a cramped car.
Plus, when you consider our youngest, Heidi, who has Down syndrome and some autism, you can understand how traveling was tricky. Yes, traveling is tricky, but we learned some ABC tips that may help your family trips.
A – Advance: Plan ahead and contact the various places you’ll be going, i.e., resort, cruise line, airline, or relatives. Let them know what accommodations you’d appreciate for your family’s unique needs. Pre-boarding a flight is a great airline service. I pre-read menus before going into unfamiliar restaurants to ensure there’s something Heidi will eat. She hates motel showers (the force stings her skin and splashes her eyes) so we request rooms with a bathtub.
B – Bedding: People with special needs are more at ease with their own pillow, special sleeping toy, or blanket, so bring them. For years, I packed a protective “puddle pad” to slip under Heidi’s sheets in case she wet the bed. Remember, being in new environments or being exhausted may trigger digression of previously mastered skills.
C – Communicate: If your child’s disability is not obvious, divert potential problems by letting others know how they can adapt for you. Travel agents, tour guides, waitresses, flight attendants, etc., can’t assist if you don’t make them aware of situations, like sensory overload. (This is not just about a person being quirky, let’s be reasonable.) We’ve been touched by how accommodating people were for Heidi’s limitations.
Communicate with your loved one before the trip, yet too many details can be overwhelming. Once there, keep them updated. Small photos, clip-art or a chart may help. Heidi loves home and each day we repeated we were going back in three days, and hold up three fingers, reassuring her that this trip was not her new life.
D – Diet: If your child has special dietary needs, (i.e. gluten-free or snacks for motivators) avoid complications and plan ahead. Do you need a kitchenette or room refrigerator in your motel for medication or food? Confirm this, or if unavailable, bring your cooler. If your loved one is allergy-prone, vacation is not the time to experiment with new foods.
E – Extras: Don’t forget the extras: batteries for hearing aids, headphones, and chargers for the electric wheelchair. Pack additional medications in case you extend your stay. With countless things going on, we knew Heidi might run off, so I packed an extra safety tools. One had an expandable cord between Velcro straps around her and my wrist, and a sturdier harness style which clipped around her torso.
F – Favorites: DVDs, videos, and MP3s can be soothing in noisy or busy places like airports, plus help pass the time when waiting. Holding favorite items bring comfort while traveling in unusual settings. Heidi loved Disney miniatures at Disneyland but on some rides they needed to “rest” in her fanny pack.
G – Gut Instinct: Be certain that your vacation destination is selected with care. Some beaches are just too much with the salty water, the roar of the waves, repeated sunscreen applications, and the gritty sand shifting underfoot. If your child is a “runner” and darts off, be sure to have an identification bracelet, necklace, or print up a T-shirt with information on the back. My family eventually realized big amusement parks were over-stimulating Heidi, so we opted for national parks, camping, museums, and small water parks.
H – How You Go: Often, going by airplane or other group travel is too difficult for these extraordinary individuals, plus jet lag is real. So while your car is slower, it gives freedom to stop as needed. Judge the distance, time complexity, and number of days away from daily routine. When Heidi was around 22, she camped with my husband and me in our trailer at a quiet KOA park near the community where her host home was. We all loved it. It was easy, affordable, and relaxing.
I – Itinerary: Plan vacations carefully, realizing you all need down time as well as fun time. Don’t plan any extreme experiences you may regret. Encourage family flexibility. Sometimes, our family would split up to do two separate activities so Heidi could have a slower pace.
J – Just Try: Disabled individuals thrive on routine. Just try to keep their schedule normal when possible, like with medications, brushing teeth at bedtime, and other daily habits. Encourage water because hydration supports health.
K – Keepsake: Sometimes parents are busy providing care and forget to take photos or videos of these special memories for scrapbooking and framing. “Say Cheese!” Having a souvenir T-shirt with the name of the area on it is a nice way for others to visit with Heidi about it.
L – Lighten Up: No matter what unfolds, keep it positive. The adults’ attitudes make or break any trip. Laugh things off, see the good, or ignore it. We missed the last flight out of Boise, because Heidi sat at the airport McDonalds repeating “Han-ger-ber.” We left the next morning. Oh, well.
M – Make Time: It’s vital to go on some vacations without your beloved disabled child. It’s a lot of juggling to ensure their needs are met while you’re away, but it’s worth it — especially to support your marriage. Also, there were some lovely trips when Rod and I took Heidi’s sisters and she stayed happily at home with her support team. We always phoned and sent our love.
Today, our family looks back at these vacation memories with laughter, fondness, and a love of other people and cultures. You can, too. Bon Voyage!
Pearson is a freelance writer and world traveler. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org and she welcomes feedback.