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Travel Tips for Special Needs Families

This past week, our family traveled from Boston, MA to Atlanta, GA. We made our way south and back by plane, train, bus, and car…and lived to tell the tale! Traveling with a special needs child can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some useful tips to make your travels smooth sailing this summer.

Explain Travel Plans to Your Child

Share with your child where you are going and why. In the weeks leading up to our trip to Atlanta, we showed our children pictures of their extended family members, created a “countdown to Atlanta,” and talked about how we would get there. In our case, by bus, train, plane, and car.

While traveling by car may feel familiar to your child, traveling by plane, bus, or train may feel less familiar. You can use social stories, videos, books, and more to help your child prepare for new forms of travel. There are some excellent ideas in this Friendship Circle post: A Special Needs Pre-Flight Checklist and this Understood post: 10 Tips for Helping Your Child Prepare and Pack for a Trip. Which leads me to my next tip…

Balance Your Child’s Comforts and Needs When Packing

Our daughter, who has sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and anxiety, wanted to bring every item imaginable to comfort herself on our trip. As we talked through her fears and worries, it became clear that her top two concerns were feeling too cold and uncomfortable on the plane. With this information in mind, we packed her favorite clothes and settled on bringing her favorite blankie on the flight.

Our oldest son, who has autism, ADHD, and an autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder, felt overwhelmed by the idea of loud sounds and sights during travel. Knowing this, we brought along his noise-canceling headphones for the bus, plane, and train. And they were the perfect comfort to him!

Know Your Rights

The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide assistance to individuals with disabilities with boarding, deplaning, and making connections to other flights. You may be wondering, “But what about getting to the plane? First, we have to make it through security!” While the idea of security may seem daunting, it is actually quite accommodating if you know what to ask for.

When traveling with children with medical conditions, disabilities, or mobility aids, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) asks parents to do the following:

  1. Inform the TSA officer if the child has a disability, medical condition or medical device, and advise the officer of the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening process.
  2. Inform the TSA officer if your child is able to walk through the metal detector or needs to be carried through the metal detector by the parent/guardian. You may carry your child to ease the screening process. The TSA officer will not remove your child from his/her mobility aid, wheelchair, or scooter.
  3. The TSA offers a helpline, called TSA Cares, that provides further assistance to travelers requiring special accommodations. You can contact TSA Cares at (855) 787-2227.

The TSA asks that you contact them at least 72 hours before you travel to accommodate your child’s needs. Additionally, you can read up on rules, guidance, and other information about disability issues in aviation is available here.

Inform Staff and Passengers about Your Child’s Food Allergies and Needs

When booking your flight, be sure to note a peanut allergy, if applicable. Our daughter has a peanut allergy, so peanuts were prohibited on our flight. When the flight attendant announced they would not be available due to an allergy, she shouted cheerfully, “That’s because of me!”

Our list of food allergies extends far beyond peanuts, though. Unfortunately, it was not an option to list additional allergies when we booked our flight. However, we found our fellow passengers to be both kind and accommodating when we informed them of our children’s food allergies. The key is to be straight-forward but gracious when sharing your child’s allergies with others. Same goes for your child’s special needs. We’ve found a smile and cheerful disposition goes a long way when communicating your child’s needs.

Be Kind and Understanding of Fellow Passengers

It’s easy to feel like our needs are greater than those around us, but it’s all relative. There was a time when I felt disheartened to be seated next to a screaming infant. Now, I want to offer a high five and a hug to parents of screaming babies.

Travel involves being in close quarters with strangers. Think about things from their perspective. Rather than saying, “My child has allergies and special needs, so you can’t eat that or talk so loudly,” instead introduce yourself and your child. Explain that your child has special needs and that you appreciate their kindness and understanding going into the flight. You always catch more flies with honey than vinegar! Open your mind and heart to making new friends – you might be surprised by who you meet!

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