At a glance
For kids who learn and think differently, prepping for or going on a trip can feel stressful.
There are many ways to get your child ready for a change in routine and scenery.
With a little extra prep on your part, you and your child can have a stress-free vacation.
Kids can be creatures of habit. And this is especially true for kids who learn and think differently. They often like keeping to a routine. They may not like last-minute changes or abrupt transitions.
So, whether you’ve planned the vacation of a lifetime or are just heading to Grandma’s for a long weekend, giving your child the extra time and space to prepare for a trip is essential. This prep time will also help your child get excited about the vacation in a positive way and — bonus — reduce stress about the change in routine.
Use these tips to help your child get ready for a great vacation!
1. Discuss the details of your itinerary.
Help reduce your child’s anxiety by explaining where you’re going and why. Describe your destination in detail and how you’ll get there — by car or by plane, for instance. Be sure to cover details such as what time you’ll leave home and what you’ll see when you arrive. Include sensory details such as sandy beaches, noisy amusement parks, or cold ski slopes. Discuss weather changes and who’ll be there, such as relatives your child knows or favorite characters at a theme park.
Some kids will want to see the whole schedule of events written/typed out with times, places, and expectations. (“Luggage should be by the door and ready to go at 8 a.m.”) You can even make the schedule together as you talk through the details.
2. Help your child envision the trip.
Showing kids a few brochures, websites, or photos to help them visualize the experience can do wonders. If your child is comfortable reading, take guidebooks out of the library. Use a calendar to explain what you’ll be doing each day. If your child uses a picture schedule at home, try creating one for the trip.
For new experiences, like going on a roller coaster or riding in a boat for the first time, it can help to show your child YouTube videos. Preview them first to make sure they’re appropriate for your child.
3. Make a list.
It can be hard for kids to anticipate what they’ll need in an unfamiliar place. Google around to find printable packing lists for specific destinations and ages. Work with your child to make a list of must-bring and maybe-bring items, keeping in mind each phase of your trip. Encourage your child to take the lead on packing and crossing each item off the list. You can check to be sure they’ve included everything. Then pack the list itself to use when you’re repacking at the end of the trip.
4. Choose clothing with care.
Encourage your child to dress in layers for comfort, especially on travel days. Together, look at the forecast for the time you’ll be gone. Have your child think of items that are easy to put on or take off based on the weather.
Avoid clothing textures your child is sensitive to, or items that might become uncomfortable during the trip. Consider a soft fleece hoodie rather than a heavy or itchy wool sweater for a long car ride. Older kids can take more responsibility for picking their own outfits.
5. Limit the number of comfort items.
A favorite stuffed animal, a night-light, or a white-noise machine can be comforting to kids who have trouble with transitions and new experiences. But limit the number of comfort items and toys so they only take up a certain amount of space. As kids get older, you can allow them to pick which comfort items to bring.
6. Pack activities and electronics.
Talk with your child about what items are allowed. Consider quiet toys and games that will entertain and keep them busy for long periods. These might include coloring materials, puzzle books, and electronic games. Avoid anything messy or with a lot of pieces. If you’ll be meeting friends or family, include a group activity. If your child has them, think about bringing laptops, tablets, iPods, and headphones. But don’t forget the chargers!
7. Pack toiletries and medication.
It can help some kids feel more comfortable if you bring the toiletry items used at home — either in full size or in travel size. And don’t forget first-aid basics, sunscreen, and bug spray.
If you’re flying, carry-on liquids must conform to Transportation Security Administration standards. Be sure to keep medication in your carry-on bags. Checked baggage can get lost or delayed, which can lead to missed dosages.
8. Pack snacks and drinks.
No matter how you’ll be traveling, bring munchies for the ride. Ask your child to help you pick out some favorites and pack them up. Explain that these are just to keep everyone from getting hungry during the trip, so you’re not going to bring a lot.
For kids with sensory processing issues that limit their diet, it’s important to pack what you know they’ll eat. This is especially true if it may be difficult to find those foods once you arrive at your destination.
9. Talk about the screening process.
Explain to your child well in advance of your trip how a metal detector works and that everyone has to go through it — that’s the rule. When you get to the screening area, tell the officer if your child has trouble being separated from you.
Read the TSA’s tips on traveling with children, including children with disabilities. Or call its toll-free TSA Cares line (855-787-2227) to ask about screening policies and procedures. The agency’s website also has a card you can download and show to airport staff that clearly explains your child’s challenges.
10. Keep the dialogue open.
In the days leading up to go-time, watch your child for any signs of anxiety. Is there anything else you can pack or any information you can provide that will make your child feel better? Remember that your child is likely to notice if you get stressed, so try to stay calm and go with the flow.
Talk through the entire schedule of the trip to help ease your child’s anxieties about any change in routine or scenery.
Pack all the essentials (medication, electronics, snacks) and a couple comfort items for the journey.
In the days and weeks before your trip, keep an open conversation going.
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About the author
About the author
Lexi Walters Wright is the former Community Manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.
Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.