Military Special Needs Network

Proudly Supporting all Military Families with a Special Needs Dependent

Strategies for a Special Needs Family Vacation

Whether you are going over the river and through the woods, or flipping family the fat finger and taking a Disney cruise this holiday season, chances are you are planning some sort of getaway. Beyond standard planning and packing, throw in special needs to the mix, and you’ve just intensified your vaca pre-planning by at least tenfold. It’s been beat to death, but it gets redone every year because the need is there. Here is my strategic list for surviving a special needs family vacation:

1.       Have Realistic Expectations, or as I like to say, “Set the Bar Really Low”: I like to have slightly more negative than realistic expectations of vacation – and life in general, frankly. If you plan and prepare for the worst case scenario, probably 95% of the time you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Side note: did you know that 85% of statistics are made up on the spot?

2.       Don’t Forget ALL Your Baggage: Here’s the thing. Your kid’s stims, ticks, sensory overload, special dietary needs, behavioral or emotional problems? They don’t stay behind – they actually go on vacation, too. I’m not discouraging you from going on vacation at all, but just know that all of your family’s baggage is on holiday, too.

3.       Plan, Prepare and Attack: Both Disney and Grandma’s house have casts of wacky characters, food that may result in bonding time with the porcelain god, and the potential for major meltdowns. Here’s the thing.  YOU are traveling with special needs kids. Everyone else SHOULD be bending over backwards to accommodate you. But, if they don’t, or are clueless about your needs, it is imperative to your mental health that you stand up for you and your kids. No, you cannot stay visiting Aunt Charlene until 10pm if your kids go to bed at 7pm. No, you cannot go out to dinner with the family at the Grandpa’s Favorite Restaurant if they do not offer the dietary options or cater to the dietary restrictions (read: ALLERGY ALERT!) that your kids need. Make your needs known and figure out alternative suggestions. Same thing with Disney. The resources are out there: plan it out. Prepare for your kids’ needs. Attack the other families who cut in line. Oh, wait. That’s a different blog…

4.       Bring the Right Equipment for the Job: think – really think – about the place you are headed and your child’s sensory processing issues. If you are going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa and their barking shih tzu, you may want to bring noise reducing headphones. Bring along reinforcers that might make the difference between meltdowns and relative calm, and, again, dietary needs. Also don’t forget special blankets or stuffies that are “must haves” for the bedtime routine.

5.       Prepare the Extended Family: If this is your first holiday home with a newly diagnosed Junior, your extended family is not going to have the slightest clue about your new reality. Talk to them. Be honest. If having 23 cousins and their children at Grandma’s house will set your kiddo off, tell them that you and Junior will not be able to attend. Chances are they will not understand until they see firsthand just what a special needs meltdown entails. But start laying the ground work. If you have a particularly supportive family, send them web links or books to read prior to your arrival. Explain the things that they might see from your child, why your child is doing them, and what the family can do to help. 

Trust me; this is not a one-time deal. Every time we go home, we review the same things over and over again with our extended family. We will likely be doing so until the old folks shuck their mortal coil. It’s just the way it is. No one really, truly “gets it” unless they live it. But, with a lot of preparation and luck, you, too, can have a fabulous family vacation.

Comments, discussion and insight always welcome!

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