By Amanda Morin
Traveling with kids can be tough no matter what. But sensory processing issues can add some unique challenges. These troubleshooting tips can help you anticipate your child’s needs and avoid vacation meltdowns.
If your child has visual sensitivities or is sensitive to sounds, textures or smells, you might have already found tools that help him. Fill a small backpack with the items he might need (such as sunglasses, earplugs and fidgets). Keep it within his reach in the car or on the plane, so he can grab what he needs even if your focus is elsewhere. He may also benefit from the “heavy work” of carrying a backpack.
While it’s nice that hotels and family provide shampoo, soap, toothpastes and even towels, your child may be overwhelmed by the new textures, smells or tastes. Pack the toiletries he’s used to and the towels you know he’ll use. It’s a simple way to avoid a sensory meltdown and to make your child feel more at home.
For older kids, this may mean looking over the route, routines and schedule for your trip. It may also mean talking about the sensory information they might encounter. For example, a big city can be loud even at night or might have unfamiliar smells.
Younger kids may benefit from a pretend practice run. Make your home into an “airport” or “museum,” and walk through what might happen there. Provide multisensory input, such as playing the sound of plane engines starting up, having him drag his suitcase or showing a video of planes. You can also practice going through security with your child. If you’re concerned about his ability to do it on travel day, learn how a TSA officer could help.
Sitting still for a long time in small space can be hard for kids with sensory processing issues. Leave enough time in your plans so you can stop every few hours for a 10-minute break.
If your child needs quiet time, map out parks or rest areas along your route. If he needs more sensory input, give him a soccer ball to kick around. Or, if you stop at a service area, have him come in and pick out snacks for the road.
Schedule some extra time to get to the airport or your destination. It can reduce the chances that your child will feel overloaded by the stress of hurrying through a new situation. It may also prevent an anxiety-related meltdown.
And if at any point during your travel you’re feeling stressed, don't hesitate to take a break for yourself. If you can stay calm, it can help keep your child calm, too.
If you miss a flight or have a long layover between flights, the wait may be tough on your child. For some kids, the noise of airport announcements, people rushing to catch flights, and planes taking off may be too much.
Try taking a walk around the terminal to look for a quiet corner. Many airports also have activity centers, which your child might enjoy if they’re not too crowded.
Many airlines make accommodations for families that need extra support. Call ahead to see what can be done to help. Some airlines offer pre-boarding, but if your child might do better getting on the plane after everybody, ask if that’s an option.
Other things to consider are arranging for aisle or bulkhead seating for some extra room, and letting the flight attendants know your child may need a little extra assistance. Be sure to stress there’s no danger, but that you want them to be aware.
If you’re traveling to a different climate, don’t forget to take into account that your child may need time to get used to clothes for a different season. Let him try on and try out his bathing suit in the shower or bathtub to make sure it’s still comfortable.
If possible, let your child choose the clothing he would like to wear and pack. Many kids with sensory processing issues have distinct preferences. Avoiding introducing new clothing for a trip is one less stressor to manage.
Be prepared if your child is sensitive to tastes and food textures or tends to melt down when he gets hungry. He may have trouble with what’s available to eat at your host’s home or the hotel restaurant.
Bring along foods you know he likes instead of asking him to adapt to new ones. You may have to arrange to have a fridge in your hotel room. If you’re staying with family or friends, you may want to provide your hosts with a grocery list and some money. Or you can ask to store items you buy in their refrigerator.
It’s tempting to go with the flow on vacation, but a change in routine can be tough on kids with sensory processing issues. Help your child go to sleep and wake up at the same time he does at home. Follow the same rules. If jumping on the bed isn’t OK at home, it isn’t OK at a hotel or someone else’s house.
Think about his regular rhythms, too. If your child gets cranky at night, you might want to finish the day’s driving before dinnertime. If mornings are tough, you might want to avoid an early departure.
For some kids with sensory processing issues, a trip to a theme park can be overwhelming. But there are things you can do to make it easier and less stressful. Here are some tips to manage some of the sensory challenges of theme parks.
Whether you’ve planned the vacation of a lifetime or are just heading to Grandma’s for a long weekend, letting your child help prepare for the trip can get her excited in a positive way. It can also help reduce stress. Use these tips to help your child get ready for a great vacation!
Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.
Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.
How to Plan a Vacation That Works for Everyone
9 Tips for Taking Kids With Sensory Processing Issues to Theme Parks
10 Tips for Helping Your Child Prepare and Pack for a Trip
8 Great Vacation Ideas for Super-Active Kids
My Kids Won’t Stop Fighting in the Car. What Can I Do?
Quiz: What Type of Trip Is Right for Your Family?
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