Holidaying with a child with special needs

Destination. Tick. Flights. Tick. Accommodation. Tick.

At long last your family is off on a well-deserved holiday. But what makes the difference between an experience your whole family will cherish forever and a potential disaster that might scare you off ever taking a holiday again?

Planning, planning and more planning.

Travelling with a child with special needs can be tricky but there is no reason why together you can’t build a love of travel and adventure that grows with every holiday experience.

The following tips have been gathered from parents who travel with children with special needs:

Before you leave.

Build excitement so the travel becomes a positive thing to do as a family and get your child comfortable with the idea that unfamiliar can be fun too!

But…if it’s too different to their day to day it can become scary and they won’t want to do it. Talk endlessly about where you’re going. Read books or create social stories about the places you’re going and the things you’ll be doing. Google the hotel where you’ll be staying and look at pictures of the rooms together. A special toy or travel accessory bought just for the trip can add to the excitement.

Sometimes it’s all in the little details.

Think about what things keep your child comfortable at home and take them with you. Do they need a special blanket, a night light, a favourite pillow, a favourite book, or special sleep toys to ensure they feel comfortable while away from home?

Think about the time of day you leave and arrive. Plan breaks on the journey if possible. Pack loads of snacks, especially those that are slow to consume, like sultanas. Colouring books and sticker books also keep them occupied for a while. Remember to charge up the electronic devices and download lots of TV shows, audio books, music or movies.

On the day of travel.

Often the worst part of travel is the plane and/or airport. Tell the airline in advance that you are travelling with a child with special needs and find out what services they offer.

Take advantage of on-line checking, so you avoid the queues. Find out what else you are entitled to and don’t be afraid to ask!

Request to board first, ask for seats near the bathrooms, and request your meals get delivered first/early.

If you’re flying for the first time you’ll need to prepare your children for the noise of the engines starting up and the bump on the landing. If you have time you might want to visit the airport in advance of your trip.

You might describe how flying can feel a little funny for your ears. Pack lots of things to suck on and chew on. Some families never fly without noise cancelling headphones.

If you find it tricky to settle your children in their seats, consider making a visual ‘seating map’ with family photos to show where everyone is sitting on the plane. If necessary put the pictures on velcro and stick them to the plane seats before your children get seated to avoid any last minute squabbles.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. One mum remembers asking for assistance to a customs officer to use the facial recognition equipment. With his help, the adolescent was able to use the equipment just like her siblings which allowed her to feel more independent and empowered in her travel.

If you’re taking medications, think about how they need to be stored. Do they need to be properly labelled, will there be any issues at customs? Would it be helpful to travel with a letter from your doctor? Have a look at the useful video on the Department of Health – Therapeutic Goods Administration website for further information.

If you are travelling with a wheelchair, there are a few tips for making life a little easier (Source: Family Travel Magazine, Issue 1, 2018); know the dimensions and weight of your wheelchair when booking flights, allow additional time for check-in and security, write instructions for operating the wheelchair and laminate and attach them to the chair to help the baggage handlers, take off any removable items from the chair and pack separately and bubble wrap any fragile items on the chair to avoid damage.

 Once there.

Even though you’d love to just relax and hang out, creating structure for your child will help them cope with the unfamiliarity.

A visual schedule for each days’ activities may help. Keep it simple in the beginning, then build it up once you get into your new holiday routine. Or alternatively stick with the activities that you know your child loves.

Following the normal sleep routine keeps them refreshed and ready to go again the next day. If you have to negotiate around activities, use the “if then” strategy – “if we go for a walk in the gardens, then we can go to the pool”.

Plan and schedule your activities so that all family members get to do things they love – this might take some dividing and conquering.

For example on Day 1 Mum might take the siblings to the theme park and Dad does something fun but less active with your child with special needs. Then on Day 2 you all go the beach. You’ll need a mix of busy days and days to rest and recoup.

Research where to go to get ‘ordinary’ or’ familiar’ food if your travel involves sampling the local cuisine. Knowing that something familiar is nearby can give your child the confidence to be more adventurous in their eating (for a few days at least!).

And Finally.

Have a back-up plan. Things won’t always go as you had hoped. It happens!

Be flexible even if your child isn’t. If it all goes wrong, implement plan B and then move on.

Try not to let your emotions take over. If you can look past the occasional hiccup, the positives of letting your child see the world (whether that’s overseas or simply a different state or territory) and seeing the world through your child’s eyes are enormously beneficial to everyone. As one seasoned ‘travelling Mum’ said “I’ve found all around the world people welcome my children with open arms and are always willing to help.”

Happy holidays!

If travelling in Australia there are a few handy things to know.

A Master Locksmiths Access Key (MLAK), gives you access to all toilets, Liberty Swings and other facilities fitted with specially designed lock around Australia. Apply for a key here:

Virgin Australia has introduced the Disability Assistant Concession fare, which offers 50% discount on flights for an assistant for all domestic travel.

The National Companion Card provides free or discounted entry to attractions, movies, shows etc for the carer or support worker of a person with a disability. Each state and territory has their own card. Find more at:

Some useful travel resources:

Family Travel Magazine (first edition Winter 2018), has a section on Accessible Travel.