September 23, 2023

Families share what traveling with neurodiverse children is like – and why routine and rest are essential

Experts and parents share how to help neurodiverse kids feel more comfortable while traveling.  (Image: Getty; illustration by Aida Amer for Yahoo)

Experts and parents share how to help neurodiverse kids feel more comfortable while traveling. (Image: Getty; illustration by Aida Amer for Yahoo)

Traveling with kids can be a life-changing, joyful experience; it can also be extremely stressful at the best of times. And when a child has ADHD, sensory sensitivities, or other traits that fall under the neurodiverse umbrella, the challenges become even greater.

Ahead, parents of neurodiverse children share what travel looks like for their family, while experts offer advice for moving around the world as smoothly and stress-free as possible.

Reliance on routines and careful planning

Spontaneity is not in the cards for many families with neurodiverse children, as many thrive on routine and can be finicky about things like food. “My top priorities are routine, rest, and tailoring travel to interests,” says Emily W. King, a child psychologist and parent who has a weekly newsletter on raising neurodivergent children. In a recent post about traveling with neurodiverse children, she advises parents to “let go of the idea in your head of what you think a vacation with your family should look like” and start with the familiar when it comes to travel.

“We avoid destinations that are too busy or too stimulating,” says Katherine Martinelli, a mother-of-two from Connecticut who has a child who is “confirmed neurodivergent.” downtime” that can be spent resting or watching TV at the hotel. They also book a hotel affiliated with the theme park to get early access and beat the crowds; by the time lunch hits and the park fills up, is the family ready to go Keeping a consistent breakfast and dinner routine while traveling has been helpful.

Preparation is essential for Martinelli, whose children are 6 and 8. Her family, she says, “try to look ahead as much as possible by talking about what to expect and looking at photos and videos online.” Every day she also makes “an overall plan for the day ahead” and makes sure “everyone is happy with the plan.” Experience has taught her to prepare for things that don’t go as planned. “We also talk about how we never know what will happen and try to make backup plans,” she says.

“Wherever possible, we also try to strategize ahead of time in case the kids feel overwhelmed,” adds Martinelli. shade and look at my phone for a few minutes. Some theme parks, such as certified autism center Sesame Street Place, have designated quiet areas, known as “low-sensory zones” or sensory guides, but even finding a secluded corner can sometimes do the trick. Parents often compile lists of low sensory zones for crowded locations such as Disney parks.

Strategic packaging is also vital. Occupational therapist Caitlin Sanschagrin, owner of Bright SpOT Pediatric Therapy, suggests bringing sensory items, such as “noise-cancelling headphones, a weighted blanket or lap pad, fidget toys, or a favorite sensory toy,” plus chews or mouth tools. Christina Adams, an author and autism advocate, suggests that parents do research ahead of time to find any local sources for the foods their child may need. “For kids on special diets, plan ahead and pack their staples, such as gluten-free mixes, candies, supplements, and the like, so you can rely on a supply if it’s not available locally. It’s worth the extra baggage fee,” she says.

Set up systems

If you’re flying, there are several programs and systems to help families who need help at the airport. TSA Cares helps people with disabilities, medical conditions or other special circumstances get through security with minimal disruption. Families can also request additional accommodations in advance, such as priority boarding, a seat with extra legroom or a special meal.

Wings for Autism and Wings for All help families practice traveling by walking them through every step of the process, except the actual flying. Many airports around the world also offer sensory rooms in their terminals. These areas have low, adjustable lighting and comfortable seating and are free from the sound of flight announcements.

Adams also suggests that parents talk to their child’s doctor for travel recommendations that fit their child’s specific needs. Many experts and parents also have tips and hacks that have worked for them in their journeys with neurodiverse children. In addition to relaxation, mindfulness, and breathing techniques, Sanschagrin suggests encouraging a child to move, even while on the go. “You can also ask the flight attendant if there is a designated area on the plane where your child can move safely,” she says.

Creating a social story

Several experts and parents suggest creating a “social story.” These are usually personalized, handmade drawings, comic strips or booklets in which the child or a favorite creature is the main character dealing with a situation. A social story usually shows a child what the situation (such as a flight or a long car ride) entails and models appropriate responses to different scenarios that may arise. According to Adams, guiding a child through a social story can help them “get used to the idea and feel safe during the journey and at the destination.”

“The first time my son was going to fly on a plane, I wrote him a social story,” Brooklyn-based mom Beth Arky tells me. “We read it a few times and again during the flight. I started writing them whenever he would have a new experience. It made it less mysterious and scary for him to have an idea of ​​what would happen.”

An occupational therapist can help you create a social story. Sanschagrin recommends creating a visual schedule that “can help children with ADHD or autism understand what happens next and reduce anxiety associated with transitions.” A visual schedule for an airplane trip would consist of “the security process, the flight schedule, including when to board, when the flight departs, and when they arrive at their destination,” she says.

Make the most of it – and learn to let go

It is important that parents do not forget to try to enjoy their holidays as well. “Try to get an approved sitter from the hotel or a family member at home to watch the child so you can take a break—otherwise it’s a lot of attention for the child and not much fun for the adul
ts,” suggests Adams. While it can be difficult to find a trusted caregiver for neurodiverse children, many vacation destinations have well-trained staff.

For Martinelli, enjoying the time off means managing her expectations and making peace with the fact that, despite her best efforts, not everything will go according to plan. “Lowering the demands is key,” she says, adding that if her child can and wants to eat only chicken fingers and fries for the entire trip, so be it. She’s also learned to “stop while we’re ahead.”

“A major mindset change for me has been knowing when to leave instead of trying to do it all and see or get our money’s worth,” she says.

And the disruptions caused by travel could potentially benefit some children who are typically attached to routines.

“Many very anxious and rigid kids I’ve worked with over the years make great strides with new foods and flexibility on vacation because they’re out of their deeply rigid routine of home,” says King.

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