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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tips for Taking Vacations with Your Special Needs Kids

From Special-Ism.com

By Eileen Riley-Hall
July 7, 2012

Ah, summer. Sunny skies, balmy breezes, green grass, and that age-old tradition, the family vacation. Every year families around the world pilgrimage to fun-filled destinations and distant relatives to enjoy quality time together. The words “family vacation” conjure up images of idyllic days spent at the beach, building sandcastles and combing the shore for shells.

However, if your family is special, like mine, you may have to be a bit more cautious in your planning and flexible in your expectations if you want to enjoy your family vacation.

The hope on a summer vacation is that the whole family can take a trip to together, enjoy some quality time, and relax. Family vacations should be a pleasure, but can often be stressful because vacation involves you and your children stepping out of the comfortable and predictable into something unknown and new.


Plan Shorter Trips

My family has had some vacation disasters over the years, and what I have learned from my mistakes can be distilled into three words: less is more. Plan a simple, manageable trip and allow for plenty of breaks in the action. Experience has taught me that four or five days of vacation are enough.

"...less is more. Plan a simple, manageable trip and allow for plenty of breaks. Experience has taught me that four or five days of vacation are enough."

Seek Privacy

I think about sensory and privacy concerns when I plan a vacation. Caroline, my younger daughter who has autism, loves pools and the beach, and part of the pleasure for her is splashing, giggling, and talking to herself, usually narrating Disney movies. She is thirteen, but acts like a much younger child. She is timid and sweet, but invariably her behavior elicits unkind stares from kids and parents who do not understand. Nothing spoils vacation joy faster than disapproving stares from skeptical strangers.

So now. I look for small hotels with fewer rooms, so the pool is less crowded. I chose a spot on the beach that might not be ideal, but allows for Caroline to have more space. For a few years, we rented a cabin on a small lake that had a beach shared by only a few other families. At a smaller beach, Caroline was easier to supervise and free to be herself and have a great time. And I actually got to sit in a chair, toes in the sand and water, and read a book!

Plan Down Time

I also make sure that we have down time in the hotel room or cabin during the afternoon between activities, so Caroline can have some time to watch her videos and rest. That way she can enjoy dinner and the evening without being exhausted.

I know the temptation is to fill every minute with activities to get the most out of vacation, but a successful vacation is one in which everyone has fun and relaxes. Keep in mind that you don’t want to overwhelm your child with a busy itinerary involving many new situations.

Let Go of the Judgment of Others

Finally, if your child does act out, don’t let the stares of ignorant strangers bother you. Who cares what other people think? Anyway, this is vacation; in all likelihood you will never see these clueless, gaping bumpkins again.

"...don’t let the stares of ignorant strangers bother you. Who cares what other people think? Anyway, in all likelihood you will never see these clueless, gaping bumpkins again." 

Visiting Theme Parks or Big Cities?

If you want to visit a major theme park or big city, resist the urge to jam every moment with action. Don’t plan an over-the-top trip that involves lots of new experiences, such as seven days running around Disney World. Not only will the expense cause you to desperately want a successful vacation, but the environment will likely overwhelm your child. Think more a small hotel outside of Disney with a quiet pool, and one or two days in the Magic Kingdom.

Visiting Family?

If visiting family is your vacation, your major stresses will probably be changes in routine and the expectations of family members. The number one rule is you know your child best; do not let yourself be bullied or made to feel guilty by family members’ unrealistic expectations. When my girls and I travel, we never stay with family or friends. I always reserve a motel room.

That way, at the end of a busy day of loud gatherings and over-stimulating interactions, we can all retreat to a quiet, private place where we can be ourselves, and I don’t have to worry about Caroline’s bedtime routine being disrupted. After all, she deserves some reassuring rituals after a day of adjusting to change and endless transitions.

Enjoy Your Vacation!

Wherever you travel on your family vacation, the whole family will enjoy the vacation more if you plan with your child’s specific needs in mine. And if you feel lost amid the sea (or beach) of neurotypicals, remember you are not alone. In all likelihood, at the moment, I will be spending a balmy beach afternoon in a motel room watching Aladdin for the 200th time with my sweet Caroline. It’s okay.

Family vacation is simply special time spent with your children. The destination may be lovely, but it’s being on the journey together that really matters.

About Eileen Reilly-Hall

Eileen Reilly-Hall is the mother of two teenage girls, one with Asperger's Syndrome and the other withautism. She is a high school English teacher at an inclusive public school in New York State and has worked with special needs students from preschool through high school, in various settings, for over 25 years. Eileen is the author of the recently released book Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum: Overcoming the Challenges and Celebrating the Gifts.

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