7 ways family trips help kids with special needs (and their parents)

Some of my fondest memories involve trips with my parents: Our first venture to Disney World, car rides to the Vermont countryside and, when I was in college, a  jaunt to that land of wholesome-ness know as Las Vegas. Now that I have kids, I want to give them those kinds of memories (er, minus the slot machines). I also want to expose them to as many new sights and experiences as possible, especially Max. He has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment, and a long time ago our beloved pediatric neurologist told us to expose him to as much as we could to help nurture his brain. Traveling for us isn’t just fun—it’s therapy. With housekeeping service!

We recently spent spring break in Scottsdale, Arizona, rated one of the best warm-weather family adventure destinations in the country by Travel & Leisure. It was a blast—and a game-changing trip for Max, in many ways. Some of the ways I’ve found trips to be an amazing thing for him:

1. Travel makes learning extra-fun. Count the Cacti became a favorite car game as we cruised through stretches of Arizona desert.

Max learning about pythons at the amazing Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde

2. Travel gives kids opportunities to not be themselves.  Max is usually scared of loud music; he’s never been to a concert. But he did venture into the lounge at our hotel, the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch, as a band played one night and he was enchanted. When kids are in new environments and out of their usual comfort zones, it sometimes emboldens them to try things they otherwise wouldn’t. Max wanted to go back every single night. It helped that the guitar player was named Max. Here’s my Max and, yes, he’s with the band.

3. You get a break you need (and deserve). If we’re going to a resort for vacation, we usually choose one that offers childcare; my husband and I need time to ourselves to decompress and be together. I always check in with the childcare or day camp manager ahead of time to discuss Max’s needs; most places are usually accommodating. One day, we visited the beautiful Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The kids checked into Bobcat Billy’s Clubhouse for activities, arts and crafts and fishing in a pond; the staff couldn’t have been more awesome. My husband I checked into our own cabana. We nibbled, napped, watched TV, swam and vegged, and it was heavenly.

4. And then you can take even more of a break while your husband watches the kids. I got a Desert Hot-Rock Massage at The Willow Stream Spa, and I can’t remember the last time my muscles were that happy. First, the masseuse rubbed warm oil all over my body; next, she massaged with hot, smooth riverbed rocks. One word: OMG.

The waterfalls at the spa. Wish you were there? Me, too

5. Travel lets kids do therapy in new ways. Here’s Max in the Sonoran Splash Pool doing aquatic therapy. Of course, there’s nothing like the physical, occupational and speech therapy he regularly gets every week—but being on vacation gives kids a chance to flex their muscles in different ways. Even better if it involves a floating plastic car.

Physical therapy: The nice walk we talk around the pond

Occupational therapy: “Cooking” in the Children’s Museum of Phoenix

More occupational therapy at the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale

6. Travel encourages independence. Max tends to be more of a do-er at school than he is at home. By that I mean, he’ll gladly feed himself at school but at home, he tries to get me or my husband to feed him (I refuse, Dave often caves). At school Max is fully potty-trained; at home, he is still working on it. When we’re away on vacation, though, our routines are upended—and Max is more willing to do stuff on his own. It helps to be motivated by tasty treats like guacamole; Max developed a passion for it. When we had dinner at La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, Max downed an entire bowl of guacamole by himself (and helped make it, too). We all enjoyed the Roasted Corn Soup, Mexico City Fajitas (chicken and steak) and Cinnamon Churros.

Mommy’s favorite: Tuna Ceviche with ahi tuna, red onion, mango and mole verde vinaigrette (I apologize if I’m making you hungry) (I’m about to make you thirsty, too)

The evening entertainment: Flaming Coffee

Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm

7. Travel opens kids’ eyes. Everything we did on our vacation was new, and everything was exciting to the kids. One of their favorite experiences was our tour of the Sonoran desert through Green Zebra Adventures. Max was practically in a trance, he was so fascinated by everything we saw.

He thought the bumpy part of the ride was a laugh riot

We all came home from Scottsdale happy, relaxed and craving guacamole—I’m already planning our next trip. Max, meanwhile, wouldn’t let us put our big family suitcase away; it’s been parked in a corner of his room. Sometimes, he gestures at it and I’ll say “Max, you want to go on a trip?” And he’ll say “Eeeee-yah!” ["YEAH!"]. And then he’ll ask, “Too-aye?” ["TODAY?"]

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  1. by Lisa Thornbury

    On May 25, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Wow. What an amazing family vacation. Such special times. We’re looking forward to a family get-away this August. Counting…down…the…days. Also, I’m craving guacamole now! :)

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  3. by shawn

    On June 30, 2012 at 2:01 am

    Imagine, instead of such an extravagant vacation, you could have donated some of that money to a pediatric therapy clinic to help families who can’t afford the cost of treatment, let alone this ridiculous vacation.