Sign up

How to Travel Stress-Free with Your Special Needs Child

Long lines, crowds and traffic can put a damper on family travel plans. The stress of traveling can overshadow the intent of having fun while strengthening family bonds and creating lasting memories. Without a plan, traveling with children can be distressing, particularly if they have special needs. If you plan to travel with a child who has special needs, it is worth taking a few extra steps to reduce everyone’s anxiety.

Consider the mode of travel. All modes of travel are likely to have some special accommodations to assist passengers with disabilities. However, these policies may not suit your child’s particular needs. For example, some policies may provide for accessible seating yet have no protocol for assisting with your child’s emotional or behavioral disabilities. Before you decide whether to travel by plane, train or bus, speak with customer service representatives to discuss their policies and your rights. Then determine what approach will work best for your family.

Prepare for transitions. Prepare your child for the trip by practicing what he or she can expect during travel. “My child has real problems with transition; that is, going from one place or activity to another,” says Kristin Carver, mom of an eight-year-old son with Fragile X Syndrome. “Before we go somewhere, I try to provide pictures of the things we'll see and the people we'll be visiting. I tell him why we're going and what we might do. I reinforce this several times during the trip. He also carries ‘transition toys’ that help get him from one place to another. Usually, once he is comfortable in the new location, he will give up the toy,” says Carver.


Stick with familiar routines. Traveling can present a huge disruption in a child’s schedule. It is important to keep your child’s sleep and eating routines as regular as possible. According to child and adolescent psychologist Jane H. Ross, Psy.D., maintaining a consistent schedule is probably the most important factor in successfully traveling with children who have special needs. “The biggest issue for kids is falling off their sleep schedule. You want to keep their diet and sleep schedule as regular as possible, and avoid fast foods and sugary snacks,” says Dr. Ross.

Take a break. To make the most of a vacation, travelers typically try to squeeze as many activities into a day as possible. However, keeping it simple and planning breaks between activities are keys to minimizing your child’s anxiety. Fun and Function LLC founder and certified pediatric occupational therapist, Aviva Weiss, suggests parents preserve the moment, while reserving time for breaks. Without doing so, even an activity like taking pictures can become over-stimulating. “The ingredients of posing for pictures, people huddled close together, bright flashes, noise and the need to stay still, can lead to overstimulation. Don’t oblige your child to participate in all the photos, and be sure to take breaks in between,” says Weiss.

Call for back-up. Get extra help by inviting a friend, family member or caregiver along. This extra set of hands can be especially helpful when traveling with more than one child.

Pack Your 'ICE.' Be sure to have your child’s medications, allergies, physicians’ contact information and all other In Case of Emergency (ICE) information handy. Let your doctors know your plans and know theirs. If they plan to be out of the office during your trip, know who will be filling in.

With a little pre-planning, you can spend quality family time together, reconnect, relax and meet the unique needs of your child while traveling.

L’Tanya is a freelance writer who enjoys traveling with her 15-year-old son who has ADD and her five-year-old son who was diagnosed with a mood disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD.

Calgary’s Child Magazine © 2022 Calgary’s Child