Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Traveling with kids who have special needs

My post today deals with tips for traveling with children who have special needs. This is something I have some experience with, because my son has special needs and I've been traveling with him on airplanes since he was a baby.

By now he's quite a seasoned airplane passenger, and over the years he's schooled me on a lot of things related to air-travel, including the importance of paying attention to every single noise an airplane makes in flight.

My guy, watching the planes
First, a soap-box moment
Like many parents of kids that have special needs, I am sometimes reluctant to label my child as such to those who don't know him. Partly this is because I fear that once he's been labeled, people will assume they know things about him when they really don't.

"Special needs" doesn't describe my child (or any other child), it just describes my child's needs.

And really, you don't know very much at all about a child if you only know that they have special needs. The label covers such a wide range of issues, from kids who are blind or hearing impaired, to those with autism, ADHD, and those who have physical disabilities.

And that's the end of my soap-box interlude.

On to the tips!
These tips are based on my own experiences with my son, and the experiences of parents I know. They are basically geared towards children who have problems dealing with changes in routine, who have sensory issues with noise and being in busy places (maybe reacting with a lot of anxiety and fear), and children who in general might have a harder time adjusting to new places and new activities.

Most of these tips can be useful for any child, special needs or not.

1. Explain things ahead of time, again, and again, and again
Preparing a child, any child, for what to expect on a flight is always a good idea. It's even more vital for children who don't like having their routines upset. Talk to your child about what will happen on the day of travel: what will happen before you leave home, what will happen at the airport, at the security checkpoint, at the gate and on the airplane.

If you have a child, like mine, who gets anxious about where the suitcases and hand-luggage will end up, where he'll sit, and how many planes he's going to take, then explain all that in detail as well. And, if your child is anything like mine, you will have to repeat these explanations and preparations many, many times. Not necessarily because your child can't remember what you told them the first time, but because they like, and are reassured by, repetition.

The Noisy Airplane Ride2. Read some books together
Get some nice airplane books, and read or just look through them with your child. Some kids are more entertained by stories, for others it will be the non-fiction, fact-filled books that hold the most interest.

Bring an airplane book along for the flight too. One with a schematic drawing of the inside and outside of the airplane can help some kids understand and process what's happening during the flight, for example what's making all those strange noises!

3. Tell the airline about any assistance you might require
If you know that you'll need to bring a wheelchair, or that you might need to bring some special luggage or items with you on board (a special stroller, a certain type of child-seat or something else), then let the airline know when you book your trip, or as soon as possible after that. I'd recommend calling, or emailing, a few weeks before departure, just to check up on things.

4. Give yourself plenty of time
It's never a good idea to be in a rush when you're traveling with kids, and if you're traveling with a child with special needs who might need more reassurance and coaxing and assistance, then allowing plenty of time is a very good idea. Arrive early at the airport to give yourself lots of extra time to get checked in and organized at the gate.

CARES Child Aviation Restraint System
5. Practice makes perfect
If your child will have to use a different stroller on the trip, or a new type of seat belt on board (maybe the CARES system), it can be a good idea to try out these new "devices" before you leave. Practicing how to put on the new seat belt, and trying out the new stroller can make it a lot easier once you're on your trip.

6. Bring any medications you might need
You should bring any and all medications your child will need during the flight with you on board, and also bring enough to last you for a few days at your destination as well (luggage can be delayed sometimes). Even with the restrictions on liquids on board, you are allowed to bring any necessary prescription medications with you.

EarPlanes Children's Ear Plugs, Disposable 1 pr7. Bring headphones or earplugs
Some children have a real problem with loud, sudden or unknown noises, and there can be a lot of those on a flight. For some, it helps if they have earplugs to block out at least some of the noise; for others headphones with a familiar story or music playing helps.

My son doesn't much like earplugs or headphones. Instead he requires a lot of reassurance and explanation of the noises and bumps experienced during a flight. These days, I often have him tell me what the noises are "That's the wheels coming down", "That's the wheels hitting the ground".

8. Allow for some quiet time
My son can get somewhat overwhelmed and overloaded by all the stuff that goes on when we're on various planes, hustling to get from gate to gate, and getting off and on planes. Some quiet time just watching airplanes through a window, or zonking out in a chair at the gate with his head in my lap, can really help give him a break and recharge to deal with the next leg of travel.

9. Bring a bit of home with you
Most kids like to bring something familiar along when they travel, and this can be very helpful for a child with special needs too. Bring some favorite snacks to eat on the flight, bring some favorite DVD's to watch on board (if you have a portable player) or at your destination, bring a book, a pillow, a blanket or certain toy your child is fond of. All this can help calm anxiety and make for a more relaxed flight for you and your child.

10. Try to maintain your regular routine
This goes for while you're traveling and when you arrive at your destination. It can be really hard to do, especially if you're traveling to another time zone, but if you're child has a hard time dealing with a change in routines, it's good to try to keep things as "home-like" as possible. For example, eat at the times you usually do, and stick to the same or similar routines at bedtime.

11. Dealing with parental stress and anxiety
On a plane trip, you are in very close, cramped quarters with a lot of strange people for a long time, and your child might be acting out, being really loud, or refusing to cooperate with the necessary things like putting on a seat belt before takeoff. Maybe they're uncomfortable, scared, or anxious. Maybe they won't sit down when the fasten seat-belt sign comes on, maybe they won't get up when it's time to leave, maybe they'll freak out in the bathroom.

There are lots of possibilities for parental stress and anxiety that goes along with traveling with kids, special needs or no special needs. On long-haul flights, you'll be tired and so will your child, which doesn't necessarily help matters either.

All you can do is come as prepared as possible and try to deal with the situations that arise in as calm and sensible a manner as you can muster (not always easy when you've been traveling for 20 hours with only a few minutes nap...). And maybe, just maybe, your child with special needs will surprise you by being a more resilient and laid-back traveler than you expected. It could happen!

Airline resources for travelers with disabilities
If you are traveling with a child who needs a wheelchair or other assistance to get around, most airlines can and do provide services to help. Usually, the airline can assist you with getting on and off the plane, and they can also provide transportation within an airport (on those zoom-around electrical cars my son is so fascinated by) if you have a connecting flight to catch.

This list links to several airline resources for travelers with disabilities and special needs.

More airline resources are available at about.com's webpage Flying with a child with special needs.

I'd like to thank Ellen, the author of the blog "Love that Max". Reading her blog this past weekend is what inspired me to write on this particular subject today. "Love that Max" is a well-written, funny, touching and informative blog, whether you have a child with special needs or not. Highly recommended reading!


  1. This is full of imformation and reminders for anyone travelling with kids! Thanks Maria!

  2. Thanks Colleen! :) We should get all our munchkins together on a flight sometime and see how THAT goes! LOL!

  3. I think baby earplugs are also essential when we are traveling with our children. There are many online websites from where we buy best quality earplugs at very reasonable price range.


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