Traveling with a special needs child at any time of year can be difficult. Holiday travel with a special needs child can be even more stressful. Special Needs SheBuysTravel has spent many holidays traveling to destinations from Walt Disney World to Ireland with her special needs son. She shares tips as a special needs mom who has been there for reducing the stress of holiday travel with ideas on packing, planning, and more!
Holiday travel can reunite families that haven’t seen each other in months or years. It can provide wonderful experiences and make precious holiday memories. Holiday travel can also be very stressful. That stress is compounded when it is holiday travel with a special needs child.
My son is seven and has ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder among other challenges. We spent Thanksgiving at Walt Disney World and Christmas in Northern Ireland last year. Traveling with a special needs child takes preparation. Holiday travel with a special needs child can involve a little extra planning. These tips helped everyone in my family including my son have a more enjoyable holiday trip.
Planning Holiday Travel with a Special Needs Child
Bring Your Tool Kit
We travel with my son’s noise cancelling headphones and his sensory fidgets. We also travel with a stash of some of his favorite foods and snacks in case the Mac and Cheese where we are isn’t the “good” Mac and Cheese or any other unexpected food challenges. Moosey the weighted moose, a few favorite small toys, and his beloved tablet also travel with us.
I created a Special Needs Packing List in hopes of not forgetting anything. These favorite things provide comfort and familiarity but can also help him deal with his surroundings. Whether it’s a special lovey, a food to have in case of emergency, or special needs essentials like fidgets, don’t forget your toolkit during holiday travel with a special needs child.
Downtime is important on any trip with a special needs child. They need the time to decompress, rest, and to “empty their cup” of all the stimulation of the trip. We have regretted it any time we failed to include enough downtime in a trip. Eventually that little cup overflows if it’s not emptied. It’s not pleasant for anyone when this happens. The holidays are a stimulation overload with the sights, sounds, smells, and activities of the season. Enjoy those things but plan a little bit of quiet time each day in a way that works for your family.
Sometimes whether he believes it or not my son needs a nap. Other times just some quiet time back at the holiday rental or hotel are enough. If you are staying with family you can try letting them have some downtime with a book or quieter activities on a tablet in a closed quiet room. A little downtime will keep the holidays the most wonderful time of year.
Keep A Routine as Much as Possible
Special needs children rely on routine to know what to expect and to feel in control. We no longer use a picture schedule for my son at home or school but we still do when we travel. He is away from the routine and familiar but a schedule (now written instead of pictures for the little reader) is comforting.
We try to eat at the same time as he normally would. We also keep bedtime around the same time unless there is something special like one night of Disney fireworks on a trip. I find if we stray from bedtime too often on a trip it can have the same result as not enough downtime. He becomes too tired and overstimulated. We also keep the same bedtime ritual for him of oils, bedtime story, prayers, and then meditation. There is comfort in that ritual along with his same weighted moose from home.You can also bring their stocking or a few favorite ornaments for additional comfort and familiarity which is what we did for our Christmas in Ireland.
If they are overly worried about Santa finding them when traveling for the holidays you can consider an early visit from Santa which is what we did before leaving for Ireland. I also had them tell me a gift the size of the palm of their hand that they were going to ask “Ireland Santa” for.
A trip is obviously going to be different than being at home but if some elements of the home routine can be worked into the trip or the new routine communicated with a schedule it can go a long way for successful holiday travel with a special needs child.
Plan Some Fun Too
Holidays can involve time in airports, long trips in the car, holiday religious services, or meals more drawn out than usual. This can be a lot of kids having to be still and keep it together which can be especially hard for a special needs child. Each trip we include something that lets the kids just be kids and burn off some energy. That can be a trip to a park, time at the pool, or heading to a playground or bounce house.
During the holidays, add in more fun options for the kids to be kids. Check out local lights displays or happenings at children’s museums or zoos.
If you do a yearly Santa visit, your trip is a good time to plan one. Not only is it fun experience, but also the kids won’t worry about Santa not being able to find them away from home.
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When we were in Ireland we visited the Titanic Museum Belfast’s Victorian Christmas event for the kids. We also stayed at the historic Bally Gally Castle. They had a blast and got to see Santa in Ireland for a special memory!
Communication can play a big factor in successful holiday travel with a special needs child. Communicate with your child what will be happening on the trip so they can feel secure and prepared.
Share with your family and friends you may be visiting what your needs are. For example, let them know if your child needs downtime and may not be able to participate in some of the activities. Communicate with them ahead of time that if your child can only tolerate a certain amount of time at a gathering. Let them know you may need to retreat to your room or back to your hotel and may miss part of the celebration.
If you are traveling as a family, communicate with your partner or spouse what the plan and expectations are. Will you stay for an allotted time and leave at that time regardless? Or do you prefer to watch for those signs special needs parents recognize that it might be time to go?
These conversations can be hard to have but I’ve found from following this topic in my Special Needs parent groups, most friends and family are every understanding. They may not even be aware what the triggers and challenges a special needs child can have but try to help when made aware. I really hope you have families that fall into the “most category” and you have my sincere sympathy if you don’t. Do what is best for your child and your family. Communicate what holiday travel with a special needs child involves and that is all you can do.
Wishing You Happy and Successful Holiday Travel with Your Special Needs Child
Successful holiday travel with a special needs child is possible with a little planning. I hope these tips help my special fellow needs families navigate something that I know from experience is very stressful. It can be a big step to even make a trip with a special needs child. I hope it all goes wonderfully, but I also understand that something you can do everything “right” and it still doesn’t go the way you hoped. Just remember it’s not your fault. It’s not your child’s fault. Simply do what we always do and move on and focus on the positive and what did go right.