Planning a Family Vacation With a Special Needs Child

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Taking a family vacation with a child with special needs can be challenging. Thankfully, many hotels and vacation destinations now go out of their way to welcome kids of different abilities, which means there are more options than ever before. The best plan is to take advantage of all the great resources at your disposal.

Planning Tips

Practice and role-play before the trip. If your special-needs child has never flown, for example, see if your local airport offers "practice events" that allow families to go through security, board the plane, and run through pre-takeoff procedures so kids will know what to expect. 

If your child has sensory issues, consider that smaller, low-rise hotel properties tend to be quieter. Request a room at the end of a hallway, away from the elevator, because it will be quieter and have less passing traffic. 

Vacation home rentals can give you the comforts of home and a quiet, private space where you can control your environment more easily than in a hotel.

Alternatively, consider all-suite hotel chains such as Embassy Suites, DoubleTree Suites, or Hyatt Houses. These properties offer accommodations with separate living and sleeping areas, which can be a calming factor.

Special Needs Vacation Resources

  • This online resource and community is a terrific place for families of special needs kids to connect. You'll find destination guides, travel reviews, travel forums, and a ton of tips and tricks from families that have been there, done that.
  • Autism on the Seas: This travel organizer has worked with Royal Caribbean to offer all-inclusive cruise vacation experiences for those with autism and other special needs. (In 2014, Royal Caribbean was the first cruise line to be certified as "autism friendly.") The organization also provides individual cruise assistance services for those who would like to vacation on their own with other cruise lines, including Disney Cruise Line and Carnival.
  • Hammer Travel: This travel agency organizes weeklong trips for individuals or families with developmental disabilities. Trips include all transportation, meals, lodging, attractions and staff support. Most of the trips are in the United States.
  • ASD Vacations: This special needs agency helps families plan trips to autism-friendly-resorts or with an autism-friendly cruise line. The staff customizes vacations around sensory issues, special interests, special dietary needs and the dynamics of each family.
  • The Arc: The nation's leading advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families works with Wings for Autism, which plans practice events at airports across the country to help special needs families prepare for upcoming flights. 
  • Autistic Globetrotting: This blog is written by a mother of an autistic child and is chock full of great advice for planning family vacations.

Destinations That Go the Extra Mile

  • Disney Vacations:  Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland have good reputations for welcoming guests with disabilities. This Disney World page on services for guests with Disabilities provides information on traveling with on mobility disabilities, cognitive disabilities, visual disabilities, and more.
  • Legoland Florida Resort: Working closely with Autism Speaks, the vacation resort installed a large panel of hands-on, sensory-stimulating activities in a quiet space within its theme park, the first of several planned projects designed to make the theme park a more autism-friendly destination for children and families.
  • Morgan's Wonderland: This 25-acre special-needs theme park in San Antonio, Texas, is a relaxed place where kids with special needs can have as much with those without. Flexible policies make all the difference. For example, if your child wants to go on a ride more than once, you don't have to get out and wait in line again. Kids also love the Sensory Village, which has a pretend supermarket, weather station, and other attractions. 
  • Tradewinds Island Resorts: These two sister resorts located a stone's thrown from each other on St. Pete Beach in Florida are designated Autism Friendly by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). Employees undergo CARD’s training program and the hotel also offers a program called KONK (Kids Only No Kidding) for special sensory activities, as well as selected drop-off programs for kids. There's no extra charge for kids with special needs.
  • Smugglers' Notch: This four-season resort in Vermont (skiing in winter, mountain adventures in summer) makes itself wonderfully accessible to kids with special needs, from its daily children’s program and therapeutic swim lessons to its Autism Mountain Camp for kids age 6 and up. Depending on individual need, kids are assigned a one-on-one camp counselor within the kids' group program to swim, hike, climb the rock wall, and do arts and crafts. 

Edited by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher

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