Vacations and Your Special Needs Child

Merely Me Health Guide

    If you have a child who has ADHD or other special needs, you may find that family vacations can be anything but a vacation. The change in routine, the lack of structure, and just the excitement of going away can be fodder for over stimulation, hyperactivity, and meltdowns.  I am going to give you some tips of how to make your vacation go well by helping your child to better prepare for the adventure to come.  I am going to tell you those things I have learned from firsthand experience while vacationing with my family and child with special needs.  I will tell you what works, what doesn't work, and how to avoid having the vacation from hell.

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    How to prepare:

    • I have learned the hard way to never go anywhere, no matter how fun you think it may be, in the peak ON season. We chose to go to Walt Disney World during Easter break. Never, ever again. I have never been claustrophobic but the crowds were like a sea of people and even I was becoming freaked out. Try to go to places during non-peak times to avoid the crowds. It will be cheaper and your family will thank you.


    • How much vacation time can your child and family truly tolerate? Think about this one carefully. It may be better to take multiple short vacations than one long one. You may have a better chance at having a successful time if your time away is only for several days as opposed to a week or more.


    • Make sure you have adequate space for your family at your lodgings or hotel. We once made the mistake of getting what was described as a "moderately" sized room. Perhaps for other families this room would have been adequate. But for my son who loves his own space, it was torture. Think about situations where you and your children will be cooped up in the room because of weather or exhaustion. Everyone needs some space to unwind and decompress. We usually opt for some sort of suite where there is some division in the room. The last place we stayed at had what they called a "Kid's Cabin"(it looked like a miniature cabin) complete with bunk beds and their own TV. We adults had our space and the kids had their own private space to relax. It worked out great.


    • Get photos from the internet of places you will be going on your vacation. You can make a little story book out of it by stapling the pages together and writing some captions about what you will be doing. I believe that reviewing what will happen on vacation greatly decreases any behavioral problems for my son. This way he knows what to expect and he does not have to become as anxious. Photos provide much better information than words do. We once went on a vacation where we told our son that we would be visiting some "parks." The parks we were talking about were nature parks with waterfalls and trails. But this is not what my son had expected when we said "parks." He had expected playgrounds with swings and slides. When we got to these nature parks he was very disappointed and let us know it. A little preparation ahead of time would have saved us this grief.


    • If you have a child who has food allergies or sensitivities like mine, it is a very good idea to stay in a place which offers some sort of kitchen area with at least a small fridge, sink, and microwave oven. This way you can bring your own food and prepare some food for your child without having to worry if the restaurants will have foods safe for your child to eat.


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    • If you are going on a vacation where there will be a lot of "relaxation time" it would be good for you to plan ahead and offer some structured choices for your child. For example when we went to stay in a cabin in the mountains we planned some kid activities ahead of time such as playing games, watching movies, roasting marshmallows, and telling ghost stories. You can't plan out every second but if the whole time is unstructured you may be asking for trouble.


    • A vacation where everything you wish to do is within close proximity is a real advantage. We just went on a vacation to a lodge which included a huge indoor water park. We didn't have to worry about car rides to places since everything we wanted to do was right there. If you have a kid who doesn't do well with transitions such as car rides then staying at such an inclusive place is optimal.


    • Make sure to pack a "travel bag" for your child. Include favorite snacks, drawing paper and colored pencils if they like to draw, a Game Boy or IPod, or perhaps even a little portable DVD player. I found a non-destructible DVD player for my son (he was able to break the regular kind within a week or so) from Fisher Price. It is a little bit more money than some but well worth it as he has had it for over a year now and it still works just fine. These items will really come in handy when there are down times when you need to relax but your child needs something to do.

    I hope these tips are helpful.  Vacations can be stressful when you have a child who has special needs.  But it doesn't have to be.  With a little planning it is possible for everyone to enjoy themselves without wanting to strangle one another when you get home.  I know from experience that a little preparation goes a long way.  If you have any strategies you wish to share about planning family vacations please do share them here in the form of a comment.  You are the true experts and we want to know what you have to say.

Published On: July 13, 2009