The Secret To Our Happy Vacations

Exceptional Parent, February 2000

I live in the Northeast, which means long, cold winters, and “Get me out of here!” by the time February rolls around. Vacations were fairly simple when it was just my husband and me, but now we have three children, the oldest being on the autistic spectrum, and the youngest being a toddler. Yet we manage to take one warm weather vacation a year, without a great deal of stress or unreasonable expense. There is an art to travelling with a special needs child, which lies partly in the details, and partly in attitude.

I have come to understand that the details that are important to my family are: first figuring out the best place to go, i.e., which place has the most to offer for the majority of us; then, deciding what sort of accomodations we require in order to be comfortable; next, getting there gracefully; and, finally, enjoying ourselves once we are there.

Destination: organizing our desires

When planning where I am going, I decide what is important for the grown-ups, and what is necessary for the children. Warm weather is first and foremost to my husband and me, so our destination is based on hot climate; the kids will do fine there, too. But it can’t be just any exotic hotspot; a six-hour flight to the Caribbean is out of the question for us. A flight that involves changing planes more than once is, too. We have always settled on Florida, but we go to different parts each year. I get an idea of travel times by looking through travel agent brochures, and then going to a website like Expedia or Travelocity. That way I can get a general idea of time and cost of flights before I commit to anything.

Once I have a couple of destinations in mind, I consult guide books for places to stay. For travelling to Florida, I have found Zagat’s U.S. Hotels, Resorts, and Spas, Zagat, New York, 1999, an excellent place to start, not because I require a spa, but because the hotels are rated by actual customers. Then I cross-reference with Christine Davidson’s Best Places to Stay: Florida. Houghton-Mifflin, 1996; and Frommer’s Best Beach Vacations: Florida, by Chelle Koster Walton. Macmillan Travel, 1995. If I can find the same hotel mentioned in at least two of these, I feel reassured that it is respectable. Sometimes I find a picture of the hotels in free travel agent brochures, such as TNT Vacations or GWV International, and this helps give me an idea of what the place will look like, which, of course, is worth a thousand words. I can use this picture later on when explaining to my special needs child what our place will look like — but more on that later.


I choose the hotel based on a few things: whether the place has an interesting pool, so that the kids will have some exploring to do while swimming; proximity to the ocean, so that it is easy to get there from the room; number of restaurants on the premises, so that we don’t have to go far to eat, but we have choices and don’t get bored. You can check the internet travel agents or the travel agent brochures for accessibility, too, which will figure into many special needs families’ list of necessities.

The final, most important condition for my family is that the hotel offers suites. We opt for a suite because they often have some sort of kitchen setup (even a minifridge and a microwave is enormously useful on a four-day vacation with kids) and this saves money and trips outside to restaurants. Going to restaurants for three meals a day with children can be stressful; having a kitchenette saves you from that hassle. Even the clean-up is not as bad as at home, especially if you do take-out and buy throwaway utensils.

We also enjoy a suite because of the additional room it gives us. It really feels like a vacation when we have a separate bedroom from the children. They have their space; we have ours. My special needs child requires familiarity and regimen in order to be comfortable. The extra room in a suite conveys the feeling of a home in a way that a room with two double beds could not. I can show him the kitchen, the dining space, the side of the bed that will be his, the master bedroom. There is room to set up a computer corner (we never travel without our laptop and favorite CD-ROMs), a reading area.

The flight: doing what it takes

We do whatever it takes to enjoy ourselves. I have found that the construction of a little booklet which I call Crisis Stories, (see “How to Write Crisis Stories,” by Susan Senator, Exceptional Parent Magazine, July 1997), can be very useful. It doesn’t have to be great art; it merely explains what our vacation will be, and where, and it contains pictures of the hotel (from the travel agent brochure) and generic photos of my child on previous vacations. By now I merely bring the old “Nat Goes On Vacation” booklet and he leafs through it, reminding himself of what a vacation is like, and what to expect.

We pack the booklet and other special items in his backpack. Each child has his own backpack, with his own things inside. I have them pack appropriate snacks and drinks, gum for my seven-year-old, fruit roll-up for my autistic son who doesn’t understand that you should not swallow gum, and a bottle for my toddler. As much as possible, I have them decide what they need to bring with them. This is the bag that holds all the toys for the entire trip, so it must be packed wisely. My general advice to them is to bring something to read, something to build with, something to draw with, something to pretend with, and something for comfort: books, a baggie of legos or blocks, pads and crayons, a couple of action figures and vehicles, beanie babies and blankies. This year we will have a Game-Boy too, which can be shared.

Building tolerance in those around us

Like many special needs parents, I struggle with the issue of explaining my son’s occasional odd behavior to those around him. When we travel, there are ways of telling without actually telling. For instance, when we are boarding the plane, I speak to my son in a slightly louder voice than usual, complimenting him warmly when he follows my instructions. This way, people watching get the idea that something’s a little different with this child. That’s all they need to know. I make eye contact with anyone who stares, and I smile at them and at my son. Smiling goes a long way. I act happier than I may be feeling, and this helps relax my child(ren) and conveys ease and competence to the adults around me. They are then more likely to shrug off the occasional bump or kick, especially when I apologize and remind my child to apologize. This lets people know that we are working on these things; that this is not about “poor parenting” or “bad behavior.” There will always be some people who will not understand, or worse, who will be nasty; I try to keep in mind that my son and I have done nothing wrong, that we are continually trying to get it right, and we will not let this disrupt our vacation.

Special treatment

There are warm weather places, like Disneyworld, that can be wonderful for special needs kids. They are great because they strive to accomodate, with wheelchair rentals, strollers, ramps, and other special setups, and we have benefited from a special pass picked up at the ticket booth, which we got with a note from out doctor. I advise that you call Disney first and explain your situation; it is not a given that you will get the pass. Once you have the pass, your child will not have to endure most long lines that are hard for any child to take, but even harder for children with disabilities like autism and attention deficit disorder. Many of the attractions have separate entrances for disabled people, or the Disney staff simply escorts your child (and his family) to the front of the line! Be forewarned that some of the Disney guests do not appreciate the situation of the special needs family. Our child has a disability you can’t necessarily see, and this caused some visitors to question our actions. Try not to feel guilty; you have paid your dues already! For once, something has come easy for your child; take it and enjoy it!

Making routines

Our vacation success as a special needs family also comes down to getting into a routine each day. Meals are a good place to start. Some years we have found that take-out breakfast brought to the room worked well; other years we would go downstairs to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet (free at some hotels for guests), take the same table in the corner each day, and eat lavishly for an hour. Lunch is often the hardest to routinize, since we are likely to be out and about. Some resorts have snack bars by the pool; others have Pizza Hut in walking distance. We try to do the same thing each day for lunch, and save the variety for dinner. The front desk often has someone who is happy to direct you to local kid-friendly restaurants, if the hotel restaurant is too grownup for your family. Take-out in the room for dinner isn’t a bad option, but try at least to go out for a special dessert.

Aside from meal routines, there are the activity routines. Each morning, we try to outline our plan for the day, using visuals if we’ve got them. We explain when and where we will eat, where we will go first (pointing to the pool, the ocean, or using a hotel brochure picture), when we will come back to the room, when there will be computer time, when we will take showers, read bedtime stories, etc. The more familiar structure my special needs child has, the less anxious he feels, and less prone he is to disruptive behavior. On the day of departure, we explain about the long plane ride, the waiting, the drive home, and finally, arriving at our house.

A vacation is yours to invent

These routines and schedule recitations are my son’s anchors. As he repeats the items in order, and asks us to fill in the blanks, he begins to be soothed by their form and their content. Once he understands what will happen, he begins to relax, and then so do we. It’s not always easy or smooth. But by now my special needs child understands the concept of “vacation” as: you get on a plane with your stuff; you live in a hotel for a while; you eat chicken and french fries in many different restaurants; you swim as much as you can; and you go home after a few days. I believe we have succeeded in our vacation formula. By being aware of our priorities and adhering to them, we manage to take vacations like most families, without a lot of extra expense and worry. And by being cognizant of the unique strengths and weaknesses of our family, we find our own particular way of having fun and staying happy. I believe that any special needs family can come up with their own list of priorities and necessities for having fun, and succeed in taking the vacation of their dreams — or close to it. Special needs parents know more than anyone else that nothing’s perfect, but you sure can try!