Tips for Traveling with a Child with Special Needs

Whether it’s a severe food allergy, a physical disability like cerebral palsy, or a behavioral disability like autism spectrum disorders, when a child has special needs traveling can be challenging. There is no reason that families that have children with disabilities or unique needs should not be able to enjoy a trip or get to special treatment centers. You only need to know your child’s rights and what you can do as a parent to make travel easier.

Always Plan Ahead

Travel is almost always stressful, but when you have a child with limited mobility, dietary needs, or behavioral challenges, it can be more so. Planning is the antidote to stress. Your trip should be carefully planned, with every detail taken care of in advance, including tickets, food requests, hotel reservations, and of course whatever your child needs. Think of what challenges you could face, and be prepared with a plan to deal with it.

If you are traveling for a vacation, choose something that makes sense for your family. For instance, if your child struggles to walk but loves to swim, a hotel on the beach and with a pool is perfect. But, a vacation out in the mountains with just hiking for recreation might not make sense. You can also research amusement parks and cruises to find those that are most accommodating to children with special needs.

Planning a Flight

Air travel is sometimes the best option for a child with special needs because it limits the time you have to actually be traveling, as compared to driving. On the other hand, flying presents unique challenges. Here are some things to keep in mind when traveling by air:

  • Book a flight well in advance and choose one with a stopover if your child will need a break.
  • Fly during the easiest time of day for your child.
  • Have all your child’s medications and assistive devices on hand for the flight, as well as a doctor’s letter to describe your child’s condition and need for accommodation.
  • Call the Transportation Security Administration 72 hours before your flight to find out about security procedures and to have support in place at the airport if necessary.
  • Call the airline in advance to find out their policies on boarding and assistive equipment, and to make sure they know you are coming and have special needs.

It’s also important to know your child’s rights when flying. The Air Carrier Access Act prevents airlines from refusing people on the basis of a disability. If an airline does refuse your child service, they must present a written explanation for why.

Medical Needs

Be prepared for any medical needs your child may have while traveling. Make sure you have enough of each medication your child takes. A note from your doctor can also be useful in helping airlines, rental car agencies, and hotel and restaurant staff understand what your child needs.

Do some research and have a doctor or medical center lined up in the location where you will be traveling in case your child needs care. Ask your doctor in advance for a referral. And, be sure that you understand what your insurance will cover out of state and while traveling.

Prepare Your Child for Travel

Children with special needs may be distressed by any big change, such as going to the airport and traveling. Prepare them by reading stories about travel and airplanes, watch travel videos, and discuss what to expect. Pack items for the trip that will keep your child happy and distracted: a familiar stuffed animal or blanket, favorite toys, and activity books.

Traveling may be necessary for your family for treatments and medical care, but you should also be able to take vacations and have fun like any other family. There are ways to make trips with special needs not just doable but fun, safe adventures.

If you’re a parent of a child with special needs, here are some resources you might find helpful:

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