14 tips to plan a vacation with a child with autism, special needs

Families who have children with special needs like autism, epilepsy and Down syndrome often don’t get a break. They don’t get to go on a family vacation because the logistics of taking their families to a new place or one that hasn’t been adapted to their child’s needs feels insurmountable.

Austinite Karen Duncan is trying to change that. She studied recreational therapy in college and then became a travel agent 22 years ago. Four years ago, she brought those two aspects of her life together when she started the nonprofit organization Adventures With Autism, Down Syndrome and Epilepsy.

“It’s what I wanted to do in the first place, to help families have a semblance of a normal life,” she says.

Adventures created group cruises that brought along certified therapists. While on the cruise, parents get to spend time away from their children or with their neurotypical children while the children with autism, Down syndrome or epilepsy are enjoying supervised activities.

The cruises and sometimes beach vacations are free to families who are chosen and paid for by the fundraising efforts Adventures does. Adventures has two upcoming cruises planned: One for March 18 and one for Nov. 11, 2018. Both require an application; information can be found at facebook.com/AWADAEorg. (The application for the one in March has to be received by Sept. 15.)

Duncan says cruise lines, hotels and airlines are becoming more aware of the special needs community and even training their employees to serve these families. She regularly works with Royal Caribbean cruise line and Beaches resorts, which have been eager to tailor vacation experiences to fit the families’ needs.

Now people are coming to her wanting her to help them plan individual vacations with their children with special needs. While she does do that as part of her regular travel business, she also has these tips for families:

Plan flights for the morning, after children’s normal waking time. They will be the most awake and not tired. Meltdowns are less likely.

Choose direct flights when possible to limit the number of transitions.

Call ahead to airlines, hotels, restaurants, cruise lines and excursion companies to explain your situation and what you need. Families are often embarrassed and don’t want to be a bother, but Duncan has found that companies want to help you have the best experience.

Ask to board first or last, depending on your child’s needs.

Ask for the bulkhead seats of an airplane so there will not be a person in front of you to distract kids (and to avoid seat-kicking).

Ask airlines and cruise lines if you can do a trial run a few months before. They have programs to let you get the feel of the ship or plane without actually leaving the airport or port.

Notify hotels, resorts and cruise lines of specific food allergies or aversions. Arrange for specific food requests ahead of time. This could mean asking for a specific lunch to be made to take with you on an excursion.

Arrange ahead of time for seating in a less crowded space at restaurants and entertainment venues.

Ask resorts if they can connect you with babysitters, nannies or respite care nurses you can hire who have experience with your child’s diagnosis. This will give you some downtime.

For families with autism, bring business cards with you that explain that your child is not misbehaving, he just has autism. You won’t have to explain to the 100 strangers who think you must be a bad parent because your child is having a meltdown.

Bring what you need with you. This includes snacks, weighted blankets or jackets, noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys and gum.

Ask for your hotel or cruise room to be made safe and accessible for your child. This could mean asking for the handicap room. It also can be asking for locks to be added on the room door as well as the door to the patio or balcony or asking not to be in one of those patio or balcony rooms if that’s possible.

Ask the hotel or cruise line to connect you to a medical supply company where you will be if you need things like a wheelchair, a scooter, a hospital bed or oxygen.

Ask to schedule ship or resort activities during less crowded times such as early morning.

Most companies, Duncan says, “will do anything to make you comfortable, within reason.”

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