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3 Tips for Traveling with Special Needs Children and Adults

How to handle being on the road as part of a special needs family.

U.S. News & World Report

Travel Tips for Special Needs Kids

Brother with his sister in wheelchair on deck of a cabin.

For people with chronic illnesses, difficulty walking or those who are confined to a wheelchair, Flying Wheels Travel makes accessibility arrangements and provides tours.(Getty Images)

Planning and executing a perfect family trip that appeals to all ages can be a headache for anyone. However, if your family includes a person with special needs, it can seem like even more of a challenge. Lack of accessibility, amenities or understanding from staff and fellow travelers can feel like immovable barriers if you or your travel companions have physical or developmental disabilities. But, with some careful planning and a positive attitude, special needs don't have to hinder families from traveling anywhere they want, whether that's across the country or around the world.

U.S. News spoke with Meghann Harris, founder of SpecialGlobe, an online resource that helps families plan and book travel based on their unique needs, about how to get started and how to handle being on the road as part of a special needs family. Harris is a mother of two, including 9-year-old Eliza, who has a neurological disorder called Rett syndrome.

Planning is critical

Planning ahead takes on a new meaning for families with special needs travelers. Aside from the regular preparation and packing, families have to ensure that facilities are equipped for their specific needs.

For physical disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all public spaces be "designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with the accessibility standards" of those with special needs. For developmental disabilities, it's a little trickier. Travelers have to call ahead to inquire about accommodations that are safe for their family member – like a quiet room for those with sensory issues or one with a balcony door that locks, for those who wander. 

Also, families with special needs kids or adults have to anticipate exposure to new sights, sounds and people who are not part of their routine. Harris suggested walking through the transportation process (whether that be by air, car or ship) so they know what to expect. Using social stories – interactive guides or workbooks that describe social situations and appropriate social cues and interactions – can help prevent possible travel anxieties before the day of departure.

If you're flying and want to learn what security screening will be like or if you need to request assistance, the Transportation Security Administration sponsors the TSA Cares Helpline that you can call 72 hours before your flight for information about what to expect.

"Before we flew, we used to go out to the airport and watch the planes take off and land to get used to the sound of the power of the engine. We've gotten a map out to show [the kids] the location where we are going and been reading books and facts about locations," Harris said. "Just trying to educate them to alleviate the stress."

Harris also pointed out families should include sufficient relaxation time in their itineraries to prevent those with intellectual impairments from being overwhelmed.

"Travel is expensive for all families and you want to try to get in as much as you can, but you have to build downtime into your plan or all kids are going to melt down," Harris said. "You have to be flexible."

Seek help from the experts

If the planning process seems exhausting, there are travel agencies and organizations that specialize in designing vacations and finding resources for those with special needs, whether it be intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome or physical impairments that require a wheelchair.

While the ADA applies to the United States, other countries may not offer the same level of accessibility, so companies like Flying Wheels Travel specialize in making accessibility arrangements and providing tours to locations around the world for those with chronic illnesses, difficulty walking or those who are confined to a wheelchair.

Families can also find individual travel agents from groups like Ensemble Travel Group that can plan trips for the whole family based on their specific special needs. For adults with cognitive disabilities, organizations like Trips Inc. provide all-inclusive vacation packages.

Additionally, theme parks like Disney offer a variety of services like wheelchair rentals and quiet break areas, as well as the new Disability Access Service Card. The pass allows parkgoers who can't wait in conventional ride lines (whether it's due to a physical or cognitive disability) to schedule a return time based on the current wait time for any attraction (similar to the park's FastPass program).

To take to the ocean, nonprofit Autism on the Seas uses vacation grants and a trained staff to help provide cruise vacations for those with autism or other cognitive disabilities. The organization works with a number of cruise lines to provide highly trained staff to travel with families and provide services varying from priority boarding to assisted beach excursions to meal assistance at no additional cost to families.

The organization also certifies fleets as "Autism Friendly" on a number of levels. So far, Carnival Cruise Lines is certified in providing services and amenities (like sensory related toys, expedited boarding and dietary accommodations), while Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises both train staff in basic engagement and communication with those who have developmental disabilities.

No matter which type of vacation you think is right for your family, Harris suggested allowing your kids to participate in the decision-making. "I love to empower kids on the road, things like letting them find the room on the floor once we get the key," Harris said. "The more you involve them in the process, the more they enjoy it."

The world is ready for you

Another worry for families with special needs travelers is how they will be perceived while on the road. Families with special needs children live with their disabilities every day and know exactly what settings or behaviors will cause obstacles, which can be difficult for fellow travelers to understand.

Harris said that while she was nervous about how people would treat her daughter while they were traveling, she's rarely encountered harsh treatment and instead found people to be generous, accommodating and willing to help.

"I've found that there is no need to fear being on the road with our kids because the world is really ready for them and that has not always been the case,"  Harris said.

Harris pointed out that travel means different things to everyone, especially with the degree of disability a family member might have. Encouraging those with physical or cognitive disabilities to explore a world outside of their comfort zones will not only let the whole family enjoy a vacation together, but it can also break boundaries that you may have never thought possible, according to Harris.

"The benefits of traveling with your kids are incredible. My daughter was not supposed to speak. I really believe that with every trip she's creating new neuropathways by seeing and experiencing new things. She comes back from every trip with the most amazing vocabulary," Harris said.

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