occupational therapists

OT Travel Tips for Families of Children With Special Needs

Is there really ever such a thing as a perfect family trip? There’s bound to be a headache somewhere along the road – or in the sky or on the ship. Parents of children with special needs may find the thought of a family vacation especially overwhelming. Pediatric occupational therapists at FOCUS hope you won’t be discouraged. There are strategies you can employ to help things go more smoothly.

Just as they are for typically-developing children, family trips are important for children with special needs to bond with loved ones, make lasting memories, experience new environments and cultures and just generally enjoy themselves. In fact, these journeys can be even more important in some ways for children with special needs because they offer a chance to expand their “safety bubble.”When they have an opportunity to be gently pushed from their comfort zones, we help better prepare them in life – not just to take more trips, but to be more at ease experiencing new things in general.

Our occupational therapists’ biggest mission is helping to prepare children to lead happy, independent, successful lives. That means helping them learn the life skills necessary to function in our society. At the FOCUS clinic, that can involve helping with fine motor skills like hand-writing, life skills like teeth brushing, eating and dressing, adapting to unfamiliar and non-preferred tasks and working on transitioning from one activity to the next. Families who are planning a trip this summer can utilize some of the same strategies occupational therapists do when determining how to make the travel as pleasant as possible for everyone.

Travel Planning Tips from FOCUS Fort Myers Occupational Therapists

Be Brave! We know you may have many valid concerns (i.e., the thought of trying to take care of a sensitive medical procedure on the road or grappling with behavioral outbursts in a crowd). However, if your child’s doctor or specialist hasn’t expressly nixed the idea of travel, the positive benefits often far outweigh the bad. Think of it this way: MOST children struggle with travel to some degree. They too can be overwhelmed with new sights, sounds, food, places and people. The fact that your child may struggle with certain elements doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t go. Planning is critical to ensuring the best outcomes.

Plan. Plan. Plan. This starts with deciding where you’ll go, how you’ll get there and what options you have for accessibility both en route and at your destination. You will want to make sure you’re prepared to handle mealtimes, bath times, bedtimes and of course with any medication or medical equipment your child needs. Call ahead to your places of destination to see what items you can count on and which you may need to bring. If certain places aren’t able to accommodate your family, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations of others that are. Keep in mind if you’re child has physical disabilities, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that all public spaces be designed, constructed and altered in compliance with the accessibility standards of people who have special needs. For those who have conditions characterized primarily by behavioral and sensory challenges, finding accommodation can be more difficult. (These might include things like a sensory room for a child with autism or locks on balcony doors for children who might wander.) Many places are increasingly offering such accommodations, but you may need to call ahead and request.

Use Social Stories. Many children with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum, may have difficulty with exposure to new things outside of their routine. Occupational therapists at FOCUS regularly use social stories to help walk them through each process so they know what to anticipate. These are usually printed booklets (they don’t need to be elaborate) that break down what you anticipate might be challenging, such as what to expect at the airport, the airplane, on a cruise ship or on long road trips. Often just preparing them for what comes next can go a long way in alleviating anxiety and helping ease the journey. One helpful video social story created by a mother of a son on the spectrum is called, “Spectrum Travel Social Stories,” in which she partners with AutismTravel.com. She has a series that details things like where to find quiet spaces at Universal Studios or how families can avoid the disco elevator at Legoland or which cruise lines, beach resorts and other locations have the best options.

Seek Additional Help. Travel agents might be a huge help if you’re taking on a longer or international trip. If it seems especially cumbersome to take on yourself, some travel companies that may offer help with accessibility arrangements are listed in this Friendship Circle blog (note: not all firms are still active). Disney offers a Disability Access Service Card (somewhat similar to the Fast Pass program). Several cruise lines like Royal Caribbean have deemed certain fleets “Autism-Friendly.” Carnival Cruise has a list of disability accommodations and services, and some options specifically tailored for children with disabilities. And don’t forget to involve your child in the decision-making process too! It’s their vacation also, and having some control can be empowering for them. Don’t be afraid either to ask our FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists for thoughts, insight and assistance.

Lastly, it’s important to say we recognize one of the biggest concerns for families of children with special needs is how they will be perceived by strangers who just don’t understand. While you may inevitably face negative attitudes from some, the world has never been more ready to embrace those with special needs than it is today. Helping your child prepare for the world around them by allowing them a chance to see it and step outside their comfort zone can be invaluable. Perhaps you will have an opportunity to make new connections, but don’t allow anyone’s negativity or ignorance steal your joy.

Safe travels!

FOCUS offers pediatric occupational therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

The Role for Occupational Therapists in Community Mobility Training for People With Autism Spectrum Disorders, June 8, 2012, Occupational Therapy in Mental Health

How to see the world with an autistic child, June 4, 2018, By Heather Greenwood Davis, The Globe and Mail

More Blog Entries:

“Is My Child Just Picky, Or Does She Need Food Therapy?”, June 16, 2018, Fort Myers Occupational Therapists’ Blog

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