By Melinda M. Thompson
It’s that time of year again: time to think about hitting the road or the “not-so-friendly skies” to visit family and friends for the holidays. Perhaps this year, your family is planning the “perfect holiday family escape” to a sunnier climate for a little rest and relaxation? Sounds great in theory, but even a trip to a crowded mall of shoppers can be complete sensory overload to someone on the autism spectrum.
How do families find that balance, replicate important routines and take the trip to see relatives—all while making sure your child has the required down time and understanding they need?
Traveling during the holiday season can be stressful. However, with proper planning, research and consideration of how a child or family member does best when they are outside their routine and comfort zone can ease the process. Knowing their needs and preparing for a reaction to possible over-stimulation or what might cause a potential melt-down can really make all the difference when planning a seasonal trip.
Let’s face it: a busy airport on Dec. 23 is going to bring some challenges. Knowing the questions to ask, the staff to talk to and arrangements that can be made before a trip is key when planning a trip with special needs travelers. With checklists, tips and contact information, we have got you covered and on your way!
Decide on your method of transportation. Will you travel by car or public transportation, like a train or bus? Will you need to fly, and if so, how will that trip through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening look for your child? Will you be traveling during peak traffic times or busy travel days? Perhaps it’s possible to leave a day or two earlier to avoid a little chaos. What will your child need to occupy him or herself? Sometimes choosing an airline like JetBlue with individual TVs on every seat is just the ticket to keeping a child happy and focused!
Get kids involved in the planning and preparation. Have your traveler pack his own backpack, and fill it with things that will be exciting to open once on the road. Let he or she choose a new coloring book and crayons or a new book or magazine. Give the child on the spectrum a sense of control by packing items that provide comfort such as video games, headphones, cards, gum, snacks and a personal travel blanket and pillow. Pack chargers and extra batteries to ensure electronics are ready to go!
Family friendly hotels are everywhere these days. Many include breakfast and wheelchair-accessible rooms, and are more than willing to accommodate a special need or dietary request. Sensory diets can be kept in place while traveling by choosing hotels with indoor pools or hot tubs.
Plan where you will stay ahead of time. Sometimes calling and requesting an early check-in time is an easy fix and can avoid a long wait in a lobby. If you are staying with family, be sure to have a thorough conversation with your hosts to ensure he or she have a clear understanding of your child’s limitations, needs and accommodations that will make it a happier stay for everyone.
It is okay to ask them to talk to their children or other invited quests beforehand. Sometimes a simple explanation of what autism is or why someone is in a wheelchair is all a family member needs. Knowing how it affects a family member creates better compassion and understanding for everyone. Don’t forget to include downtime or outings to take a break from family and crowds that help everyone recharge.
TRAVELING BY PLANE
The Internet is a wealth of information for preparing to travel by plane. From social stories, books, videos and the new program TSA Cares, a lot of support and assistance have been implemented for travelers with special needs. TSA Cares’ purpose is to avert potential difficulties involving security screening of travelers with disabilities. You can print out a special “Notification Card” to give screeners as a “heads up” in a discreet way allowing parents to communicate the special needs without alarming or worrying your child.
The website includes information categorized under the extra assistance needed: Autism or Intellectual Disabilities, Passengers Who Have Difficulty Being Touched, Waiting in Line and Disabilities and Medical Conditions, as well as information for Children with Disabilities.
Review the specific information and inform the TSA officer how to approach and screen your child. Children with disabilities CAN be screened without being separated from their parents or guardians. You can even request a passenger support specialist ahead of time by calling a toll-free TSA Cares hotline. This special helpline number is “designed to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions, prior to getting to the airport,” according to the TSA website. Travelers may call TSA Cares toll-free at 1-855-787-2227 prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint.
TRAVELING BY CAR
Going by car can provide more flexibility and allows you to travel at your own pace, create a schedule that works for your family and make stops as needed. However, it can be long, boring and tiring for kids who are not use to riding for long periods of time. Being prepared with the pre-packed backpacks—games, phone apps, snacks—will help keep passengers busy.
If you can take an extra day or two, talk to your travel companions about a special stop or sight-seeing destination along the route. Feed their interests with a stop at a landmark, park or museum that will tap into a specific source of excitement. Check with local tourism or chamber offices for local insight to make memories along the way. Traveling to another state? Give passengers a map to follow along or use a smart phone with roadside maps and attractions.
For some families, driving at night when children are sleeping can help alleviate some of the “Are we there yet?” questions from the backseat. Looking at a route to take into account any construction or road closures is a good pre-planning tip as well.
TRAVELING BY TRAIN
Before traveling by train, call ahead to ensure that your designated stops have wheelchair mobility or accessibility. Information, accessible seating and bedroom space can be secured in advance, and more details are available on the Accessible Travel of www.amtrak.com.
Amtrak offers a discounted 15 percent rail fare discount to passengers with a disability and up to one traveling companion. You must provide written documentation of your disability at the ticket counter and when boarding the train.
Another resourceful page is the Amtrak Kids Depot online, a fun informational webpage filled with games, stories, activities and links. Get kids excited about trains or buses by sharing history and social stories beforehand.
Trains make many stops, and packing small “activity bags” can be helpful to keep a child entertained at each station. Also talking about the various stops, landmarks or cities through which you are traveling can create a nice dialogue along the way.
THEME PARK TRAVEL
Visiting a theme park can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience if it is a good fit for your family. The sensory overload is magnified through lights, sounds, sound effects and larger-than-life characters around every corner. Pre-planning and knowing your traveler’s triggers and interests are essential. The holidays are the busiest time of the year, so lines are longer and the parks are packed. Look at park maps ahead of time, and ask where good quiet spots and spaces away from crowds might be possible to recharge.
Disney theme parks have been in the news lately for the changes to their accessibility policies for those with disabilities. The Disability Access Service Card (DAS) is designed to accommodate guests who are not able to wait in a conventional line environment due to a disability (including non-apparent disabilities).
Read and research, call Guest Services and ask specific questions to ensure you are very clear about how the new passes work. There is no longer easy “fast access” to attractions. Guests with disabilities using special passes must have their photo taken, be with their group and go to assigned kiosk stations around the park to obtain a specific pass for a specific attraction. They will be given a reserved time to come back.
Creating memories from a family trip and spending the holidays together in transit is an experience one will never forget. Luckily, traveling with children and family members who have special needs has become much easier. There are ADA accommodations almost everywhere you go, and with the proper planning, you and your family can experience a magical holiday!
Melinda Thompson is a mother of two teenagers and a freelance travel writer. With a degree in Speech Communications, she has worked as a Parent Information and Training Specialist for PAVE and wrote a parenting column for eight years in Portland Family Magazine. Melinda’s stories have been featured in the Oregonian, the Columbian and numerous other local publications. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org