Any parent can tell you that vacations are never really vacations when you have the kids around, and this is even more true when your child has special needs.
My youngest son has Developmental Trauma Disorder and PTSD, along with sensory processing issues and developmental delays. When he was younger he was very quick to enter fight or flight. All of his caretakers had experienced injuries to their backs, necks, arms, and shoulders from his panic attacks. One moment he would be holding your hand walking calmly, the next minute he was bolting or throwing himself to the ground. New situations made this much, much worse. New people getting in his space was a sure fire trigger (picture a child like this trying to navigate airport security!).
In addition to my his needs, my other son has anxiety disorder plus sensory issues. Oh, and insomnia.
Not exactly a formula for travel success.
But my husband and I love to travel. It’s always been our thing. So finding a way to make travel work with the kids was a necessity for our own mental health. We are also big believers in learning by doing. We learned Spanish in Mexico and Cuba and it was wonderful! We wanted this for our kids too, even if the road may not always be smooth. It took time and patience and lots of trial and error but our boys love to travel now and we are preparing for some big trips in the coming years. But we didn’t get here overnight.
Here are a few things that have helped our kids learn to love traveling.
We took a long term view of teaching our kids about travel. Like anything, this meant starting with baby steps: Short trips, flights with no border crossings, short duration holidays. Then slowly building up to bigger, more complicated trips. We still have never taken a trip with the kids that did not involve a direct flight. Transitions are hard for the boys, so going direct was important, but we are planning our first connecting flight vacation now that our boys have mastered short and long haul direct flights. It’s been like teaching reading. You start with the most basic steps, then slowly build up as they master the skills.
Staying very engaged with the kids is a necessity. We study their body language looking for any signs of over stimulation. We are constantly checking in to see what they might need so we can head off any meltdowns. To achieve this we divide and conquer. One person handles all the logistics, paperwork and officials, while the other stays focused on the kids. This has become much easier over the years as the boys have started to learn how to recognize their own needs.
For the first few trips, we chose destinations we knew. By being familiar with the destination took a lot of the pressure off of us and made everything much less stressful. This also meant we were aware of any possible triggers.
Plans are made around the children’s needs. Bedtimes are kept, regular meals planned, and space alloted for them to burn and play. We are also very careful not to over schedule and provide lots of quiet time.
We have learned to accept that sensory issues do not go away while traveling. Our vacations are special moments in our family time and we don’t want to spend it trying to regulate our child who has gone into sensory overload. We know from experience this can take a day or more for Preston if he hits full blown meltdown, and that isn’t how we want to spend our precious vacation days. This makes us apply a lot of caution with activities that could lead to sensory overload.
Travel during off times! Shoulder seasons are wonderful, midweek can often be quieter at popular attractions. Doing a bit of research can help you avoid the stress and chaos of crowds.
We always try and stay somewhere with a pool. Swimming is very calming for both of our boys, and helps them stay regulated. We also love to go hiking, which is something our whole family enjoys. Daily exercise is vital!
Comfort food becomes a staple. I throw a lot of our regular meal plans and ideals out the window when we travel and instead go for food that is fulfilling and easy and makes us feel good. Usually this means lots of outside picnic type meals.
It took time but traveling has become something our whole family enjoys. Our map of the world has lots of little stickers on it, and we often discuss all the different places in the world we would like to visit one day. I love that my boys have learned to embrace travel and new experiences and adventures. I’m also really looking forward to doing some worldschooling (homeschooling while traveling). There is so much to learn about our world, and I can’t wait to share it with my boys.