As a mother of four children, including my son Nathan, who has cerebral palsy, I have experienced firsthand how daunting it can be to travel with a child with special needs. Nathan is my youngest child, and when he was born my husband and I already had our hands full with three kids under eight. Initially, traveling with him was no different than traveling with any other baby. As he grew older, and the specialness of his needs became more apparent, we found it increasingly difficult to travel with him. Consequently, we stopped family travels for a while.
We eventually resumed traveling when Nathan turned two, as we needed to seek medical treatment overseas. However, navigating airports and ground transportation proved to be quite challenging. To make matters worse, unexpected healthcare issues arose, overwhelming me. Among our many journeys, one trip stands out vividly in my memory—it was the time we traveled from Jamaica to Florida for Nathan to visit family and for medical treatment. I had not anticipated that he would catch a cold and so was not prepared. We could not find over-the-counter medications comparable to what he used at home, so we had to take him to the Emergency Room where we ended up spending the day.
After encountering several travel emergencies, I eventually learned that when traveling with a child or family member with special needs, preparation is the key to a successful and enjoyable trip for everyone involved. With this in mind, I have compiled my top five recommendations to increase ease and reduce stress on your family travel experiences.
1. Pack all the necessary medications, medical supplies, and information. Keep enough cold, fever, constipation medications and supplies on hand. Pack these items in clear zip lock bags in your carry-on so you always have them.
During a separate trip, we packed cold medications for Nathan but faced another challenge – dealing with constipation issues. This is a recurring symptom of his cerebral palsy. Normally, we effectively manage this problem at home through methods such as him rolling on the floor, giving him a warm bath or administering an enema. However, these options were unavailable on our trip to Orlando. So, once again, we ended up spending the day with him in the ER. This unforeseen situation made us realize the importance of always being equipped with the necessary medications. Consequently, we have since made it a point never to leave home without these essential items.
2. If your child uses a specialized wheelchair, ensure it has a boldly displayed Do Not Disassemble label. In addition, it would be best to mention to the check-in counter and the attendant at the aircraft door that the chair should never collapse.
During our week-long trip to Bakersfield, California, we faced an unexpected challenge involving Nathan’s specialized wheelchair, which provides crucial neck and trunk support. The airline ground crew disassembled the chair before placing it in the cargo hold to facilitate its transport. However, upon reaching our destination at LAX, we encountered difficulty reassembling the wheelchair. This unexpected setback forced us to wait more than eight hours until the airline could arrange for a technician to come and put the chair back together.
Following this incident, we have learned to be more cautious and prepared when traveling with a wheelchair. One important measure we have taken is to ensure we always carry a sticker indicating the specific requirements and instructions for handling the wheelchair. This small but crucial step helps minimize the risk of encountering similar issues in the future, making our journeys smoother and more manageable since then.
3. Adjusting your plans and activities in consideration of your child’s needs and interests is vital. Ensuring ample time between connections, preferably ninety minutes to two hours, is also crucial to allow for sufficient rest and recharge throughout the day. After all, the last thing you want on a trip is a meltdown due to exhaustion and frustration.
We have faced the frustration of missing connecting flights on a few occasions due to insufficient time between connections. These missed connections not only disrupted our travel plans but also had a ripple effect on our entire itinerary. As a consequence, we found ourselves in the unfortunate situation of missing important appointments or engagements that were scheduled at our destination.
4. Ensure you communicate your child’s unique accommodation needs with airlines, hotels and other travel providers. Communicating in advance ensures your child’s needs are met and that your trip goes smoothly.
Due to a lengthy flight delay that was poorly managed by the airline ground crew, there was a time we ran out of appropriate food for Nathan during a budget-conscious trip. Consequently, we found ourselves not having enough food for him on the return portion of our journey. When we got onto the flight, there was nothing available that he could eat. Since then, we ensure that we fill out his special needs when booking flights.
We also make a point to pack extra nutrition shakes that he loves. This way, we can proactively address any unexpected events or delays, ensuring that Nathan has the necessary sustenance throughout our journey.
5. Flying at night can make your child’s long plane trip easier. A child used to sleeping at night may be able to sleep for a considerable portion of the flight.
Nighttime flights have proven to be a true blessing for us. This makes air travel more serene and tranquil as Nathan sleeps through most of the flight. But, if a nighttime flight is not feasible, it is worth considering additional measures to help your child relax. Bringing along familiar comforts such a beloved pillow or blanket, comes to mind. These can provide security and familiarity. Noise-canceling headphones can help block out disruptive sounds, or a tablet loaded with their favorite movies or TV are also great options for making the trip more engaging and enjoyable.
As you plan your next trip, don’t let the challenges of traveling with a child with special needs discourage you. With the proper preparation and planning, you can create a fun, memorable and stress-free vacation for everyone. So go ahead and enjoy the journey!Christine Staple Ebanks is an accomplished author, dynamic public speaker and unwavering advocate for special needs parenting. With four children, one of whom has cerebral palsy,and her extensive background in human services, Christine’s writing and advocacy amplify the voices and empower the stories of children with special needs and their families. Through her organizations, the Nathan Ebanks Foundation in Jamaica and Raising Special Needs Inc. in the U.S., Christine’s work serves as a catalyst, driving change across Jamaica, the Caribbean and the U.S., for the effective inclusion of these exceptional children in society.