Traveling with Special Needs Kids
By Kathy Chin Leong

With autism on the rise as well as other cognitive and physical impairments, many special needs parents want their kids to enjoy what non-disabled children enjoy, and they are determined to make travel part of the growing-up experience.

Challenges for each special needs family differ as much as the disability itself.

Wheelchair-reliant kids and those with cognitive and/or emotional constraints require that the parent understand the child's most intimate needs in order to have a sane and happy trip. Well-traveled moms and dads do the proper research to ensure the destination is a good match for their child's temperament as well has physical limitation.


For kids who use wheelchairs, a city's or an attraction's wheelchair accessibility program often determines whether or not the family travels there. According to Debbie Drennan, assistant technology specialist at Parents Helping Parents, San Jose, Calif., parents must plan ahead so they aren't in for rude surprises during their trips.

Drennan, who has a 12-year-old son, Jon, in a wheelchair, says that she always checks the Internet, does a search, and keys in certain destinations and cities ahead of time. "Many large cities have special visitor's guides," she says. "When we went to San Diego, I requested a visitors guide for people with wheelchairs." These guides give a listing of all the parks, recreational facilities, hotels, and attractions that have wheelchair access, notes Drennan.

When the family flies, she will book the lowest fare via the Internet, and then call the airline to make sure they know they will be bringing a wheelchair on board. "Not all the airports have ramps, but the major ones do," she adds. "Sometimes they don't have a ramp to go into the airplane, and we have to have them use the luggage lift."

And in the airports, instead of going through the security clearance gate, airport personnel will usually wheel her son around the gate and pat him down to check for drugs and weapons as standard procedure. "Sometimes, they ask me if he can stand up, and I tell them that he would if he could," she says. "They have to pat him down because the wheelchair would set off their wand metal detectors."

When it comes to staying in hotels, Drennan requests a wheelchair-accessible, non-smoking room, always on the first floor. "I always check on a hotel's access before we go." She also calls the main desk to make sure there are no stairs that may hinder their passage. Even a few as four or five steps in front of a rampless hotel can cause frustration.

Each year the Drennan family embarks on a family adventure, and so far, they have gone everywhere they want to go. They don't go hiking, but they do go car camping. And she has even found special discounts at national parks where disabled visitors get a break on the annual pass.

If the family goes to the seashore, Drennan will call the beach ahead of time to find out if they carry complimentary beach wheelchairs. These chairs, she explains, have wider tires and will not sink into wet sand when kids want to play near the water. "You have to go early for these because they tend to get snatched up right away."

The Drennans have not flown internationally, but she is investigating the possibility. "I absolutely want my son to have every opportunity to travel," she says. "Next year we are going on a cruise to Alaska, and I always booked a wheelchair-accessible room in advance!"


While the Drennans are sensitive to places providing wheelchair access, other issues face parents of autistic children. Ken Low, father of 13-year-old Jenna, has established a routine when traveling with his autistic daughter and family. When they fly, he makes sure they get the seats right behind the interior wall, so no passengers are situated in front of them. "She likes to kick, and so we want to make sure we don't disturb anyone."

As often as possible, he gets her a seat near the aisle so she can walk when she gets antsy. And when walking is not permissible, favorite snacks are always available so she is occupied.

In the hotels, the family always finds hotel suites to accommodate their two other children as well. When they go to the hotel, Jenna will usually be the first to claim her bed, and the family settles on sleeping arrangements thereafter.

In choosing restaurants, Low finds dining establishments that are extremely family friendly and busy. This way, when Jenna decides she wants to wander around, it causes a minimum of distraction in the restaurant.

When planning vacations, Low makes a distinction between those he plans for himself and his wife and those he plans for the family. He intends to work hard when he is with the kids, particularly as he cares for Jenna's every need during each trip.

Because Jenna and the kids like amusement parks, the Lows frequent Disneyland annually. They have found Disneyland proactive when it comes to supporting special needs families. They are able to stand in a special line for rides so Jenna does not have to wait as long as the public.

According to Drennan, for parents with kids who are mentally retarded or have emotional problems, it is important to explain what will happen on the airplane, how to behave, and get them involved with the planning if possible. Don't pack in a full day of activity, she warns, or you'll have a meltdown.

Finding a hotel with a swimming pool is good for high-intensity children who tend to get overstimulated during vacations. "It's important to be flexible and build in down time," she says.

The most important thing in planning a vacation, note special needs parents, is to know your child. Understand his likes, dislikes, and what activities will be positive for him and the entire family.



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