Special Needs Now

4 Ways to Enjoy Family Vacation With a Special-Needs Child

Vacation with our three children, including Penny, who has Down syndrome
My husband, three kids, and I recently took our first official family vacation. The five of us flew south together for the first time to a lovely and family-friendly resort. We enjoyed a week of sunshine, swimming, good food, and rest.

Despite how much fun we had, I also learned a lot about what I would do if and when our budget allowed for another similar vacation. Some of the lessons were quite general (pack Ibuprofen and antibiotic drops for the inevitable ear infection that a kid will get from the pool, pack sun shirts and hats to protect New England skin from those UV rays), but some lessons were specific to our daughter Penny, who is 9-years-old and has Down syndrome.

I wasn't as prepared as I could have been. Our kids participated in a children's program in the morning, and Penny cried through the first hour of it for the first three days. I didn't anticipate how challenging it would be for unfamiliar people to understand her speech. I didn't remember that Penny moves at her own pace, and it took a few days of falling off my bike, as I tried to slow it to Penny's pace, to realize that I should just walk beside her as she tried out her own training wheels.

Years ago, I remember my friend saying that going away on vacation with young children should actually be called "intensivication." He coined that term to mean that vacation time is simply an intensified version of typical family time. When it comes to having a child with special needs, the intensity can go up another notch. Vacation can be a time that emphasizes that child's needs and challenges at the same time parents hope it will be an opportunity for relaxation and rest. But being on vacation usually involves new places and interacting with a host of new people, whether it's a waiter in a restaurant or another child playing on the beach. All these changes—in location, temperature, and routine—can pose sensory, emotional, and physical challenges for child and parent alike.

Some of those challenges can't be avoided, but based on my recent experience, I'd like to offer four ways you can increase the enjoyment and decrease the intensity of vacations if you're traveling with a child who has special needs:

Ask yourself and your family: What will make this a vacation?

For some people, vacation means lots of sleep. For others, shopping. For others, family game nights. Do you long for time together? Time alone? Take some time to consider your own top priority for vacation and talk with your spouse or partner—and even your children—about how to make that priority a reality. Then, let go of needing the rest to be ideal.

Make sure to gather and provide information.

If your child has significant medical needs, be sure to travel with the information a doctor would need in order to provide care. (Depending on the extent of your child's medical history, you might consider creating and bringing a Care Notebook with you.) If you will be leaving your child with a new babysitter or having your child participate in a program through a hotel/resort, talk with your child's special education teacher ahead of time and ask for help communicating with new caregivers about what your child might need.

Always anticipate and minimize transitions.

Just as it will help you to be prepared for the upcoming trip, it will also help your child if she knows what's coming. Create a story about your vacation that you should tell ahead of time; it can help your child anticipate, and even look forward to, the upcoming changes. If you will be changing time zones, consider shifting bedtime a bit forward or backward for a few days before you leave. If your child has anything that comforts her at bedtime, bring it along. Or if your child has an activity that helps her feel safe and familiar, make sure it is accessible when you travel. In our case, Penny is a big reader, so we brought a trove of familiar chapter books. She retreated to those books when all the activity or people became overwhelming.

Remember to celebrate your family.

Every family vacation has a story about a disastrous turn of events—the time one kid had an accident in the pool, the time another fell off her bike and needed stitches, the time it rained all week or she got the throw-up bug, the time he screamed in the middle of the restaurant because they didn't have chocolate milk on the menu, and so on down the disaster list. But when those cuts and bruises or bad weather or embarrassing situations happen, try to remember that vacation is not a time for perfection; it is a time for celebration.

Despite the family challenges, we still had a wonderful week. We went for walks on the beach. Penny befriended a few teenagers and chatted them up, and all three kids found friends to throw a ball with in the pool. We played Uno and read Anne of Green Gables in the middle of lazy afternoons and drank "special drinks" (non-alcoholic strawberry daiquiris) in the evenings. The tears turned to smiles. The intensity turned to relaxation. As has happened so often in the past, the worry turned to gratitude.

May it be so with you.

Related: Travel Tips for Children With Autism

Amy Julia is the mom of three kids who love broccoli and hot dogs, and who ask for lollipops every day! Her guilty pleasures are Chardonnay and Diet Coke. She is also the author of Small Talk: Learning from my Children about What Matters Most and A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny. Visit her at amyjuliabecker.com.