Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The Secret to Happy Vacations

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The Secret to Happy Vacations

Article excerpt

Vacations were fairly simple when it was just my husband and me, but now we have three children. The oldest has autism, and the youngest is 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 partially in the details, and partially in attitude.

Destination: organizing our desires

When planning where we are going, I decide what is important for the grownups, and what is necessary for the children. Warm weather is first and foremost to my husband and me, so our destination is based on a hot climate. The kids will do fine there, too. It cannot. be just any exotic hotspot, however; a six-hour flight to the Caribbean is out of the question for us. A flight that involves changing planes more than once is as well. 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, then going to a Web site like or That way I can get a general idea of the 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 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, and this helps give me an idea of what the place will look like. I can use this picture later on when explaining to my child with special needs where we are going.


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 set-up. 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. My child with special needs 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.

The flight: doing what it takes

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 does not 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. My son 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 7-year-old, fruit roll-ups for my son who has autism, who does not understand that you should not swallow gum, and a bottle for my toddler. …

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