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Traveling with Kids with Sensory Disorders



You can travel with a child with a sensory integration disorder, including autism or other disorders. You just need to plan ahead and anticipate his or her needs when you’re traveling with a child with special needs.   Kids with sensory integration disorders can travel; you just need to be prepared and, above all, be flexible.

My husband, Jim, and I are veterans.  You see, we have served in a different kind of battle.  We have survived traveling with a child who has special needs.  I guess you could call it “combat training.”

The past several years have been a “boot camp” experience towards enjoying a simple family vacation with our child who has a sensory integration disorder.

We have flown on airplanes, sailed on cruise ships, traveled on trains, rode on buses, and enjoyed a few sailboat rides along the way.  Each initial experience began with meltdowns, tantrums, and other behavioral issues.  We have had our share of being criticized by onlookers.  We have been asked to leave places and have been confronted by airport security.

Our son has been diagnosed with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID).   It is not just another “diagnosis of the day”, but a roadblock for many children in the spectrum of autism and related disabilities.  It also can be a challenge for many typically developing children, too.

People with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) have great difficulty figuring out what is going on inside and outside of their bodies.  There’s no guarantee that the sensory information they’re working with is accurate. In response, a child may avoid confusing or distressing sensations.  What may be a simple experience for others can become sensory overload for a child with special needs and result in the day being ruined by something as simple as a fire drill.  While you can’t control every situation, we found some strategies to help our son survive:

Phone first

In this world of Internet information there is still no replacement for talking to a human being.  Call the travel provider and find out how they can accommodate your child’s special needs.  Most airlines, cruise ships, and theme parks have programs to accommodate children with special needs.   Find out what they have to offer and how they can make your family’s vacation relaxed and memorable.

Squirrel away snacks

Children often have a hard time waiting or do not like the food options that are available.  We have avoided many meltdowns by having food with us.  A simple peanut butter “Jiff on the Go” has saved us from behavior nightmares.  Find out ahead of time what you can take with you on the plane or on board a ship.

For example, our son relied heavily on Pediasure, a nutritional supplement. We found out that we needed a doctor’s note to bring it on board a cruise ship.  If I had not called ahead, I would have never known, and our vacation would have been ruined.

Study the route

Study the route and plan your stops to meet your child’s needs, as well as your own.  Many children with SID challenges cannot sit for long periods of time and need a break.  Plan these into your travel route.

Quiet the noise, quiet the spirit

Many children with SID challenges have issues with loud noises.  Try earphones or an iPod.  They can provide calming music or familiar noises to distract your child.

Pretend to prepare

We were stressed about an upcoming flight.  We practiced by playing “airplane.”  Mommy was the stewardess, Daddy was the pilot, and Wyatt was our passenger.  A note—if you’re planning on using a carseat, be sure it’s FAA-approved or it won’t be allowed on board.

Know your rights

Be careful if you buy tickets to see “Dora Live” or some other event that may push your child into sensory overload.  Find out if you can get a refund or what special accommodations they are willing to make for you.  The same is true of travel or theme park providers.  Most of them will make special accommodations.  Visit specialneeds.about.com for more resources and links.

Overlook the “ten percenters”

I think it is human nature for us to focus on the one person who made a rude comment or offered unsolicited parenting advice.  I call these folks “ten percenters.”  We have been amazed at how helpful complete strangers have been in helping to calm or to entertain our child.

Don’t get discouraged

It’s very upsetting when you have purchased tickets to a live production and you can’t even get your child into the theater, or you can’t get them to wear a life jacket for a boat ride.  Accept it as an investment in working towards overcoming their sensory issues.  Sometimes you can ride it out until your child decides it’s not that bad.  But sometimes, you just have to realize you have work to do and will try again another day.

Celebrate your successes and encourage others

Relish those milestones when you finally can enter a movie theater or when you can survive a boat drill on a cruise without a meltdown.  Most of all, reflect on what tips you can share to encourage others.  Passing it on to help others is the greatest gift you can give.

This article was first printed in Parenting Special Needs magazine. Their website is parentingspecialneeds.org.

By Cynthia Falardeau

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