How to Travel When Your Family Isn't Typical
From selecting attractions to hotel choices, a mother of an autistic son shares how her family navigates their way to places where everyone feels welcome.
Ultimate Family Vacations 2022
When our son bawled for the entire flight between Puerto Vallarta and Calgary, I chalked it up to the terrible threes. Ditto for road trip tantrums and restaurant outbursts. But after he received an autism diagnosis at age four, I realized travel was going to be more difficult for the family.
I was delighted when we discovered Morgan’s Wonderland on a trip to San Antonio, Texas in 2012. Not only does this theme park provide universal accessibility on its rides and playgrounds, it also has plenty of sensory activities that appealed to Bennett, including a music garden and waterpark, plus areas for chilling out if he got overwhelmed. I realized there were destinations out there that celebrated differences.
In the decade since that vacation, there has been a groundswell of inclusion in the travel industry, making it possible to trip-plan with intention. Work with a travel professional to get expert advice on hotels, restaurants, attractions and destinations that make every effort to welcome all families.
Before checking in, make sure your overnight accommodation has amenities that will contribute to a successful stay. For our family, that means a quiet room away from the elevator or street noise, a fridge to store special food items, and a swimming pool and hot tub for our young water lover.
Most hotels are happy to accommodate requests, such as accessible rooms for wheelchair users. Some, like the Chelsea Hotel in Toronto, offer guests with autism a “fidget kit” at check-in that includes sensory toys for self-regulation.
ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES
Sensory stimulation can be overwhelming for kids with autism or cognitive differences. Bennett has bolted from museums and science centres after seeing or hearing something upsetting. Now, I prepare him by creating a visual story about the experience, or we choose attractions that offer sensory kits to help ease anxiety, or quiet zones for him to reset.
The OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale, Arizona, for example, is accessible and sensory sensitive. It features lower sound volume in exhibit spaces, lights that fade down rather than abruptly switch off, and two quiet rooms for guests that need a break. In Park City, Utah, the National Ability Center offers adaptive recreation for kids with motor challenges or cognitive disabilities. With extra support, my son went rock climbing for the first time and he successfully rode an adaptive bike.
There’s nothing worse than getting stink-eye from other diners when your kid smears ketchup on the white tablecloth or throws his cup of water in a meltdown moment. For atypical families, few travel excursions are as fraught as sit-down meals.
To avoid a worst-case scenario, I ensure the restaurant has food everyone in the family likes before taking a table. Most modern menus cater to special diets, whether gluten-free or vegetarian, so the biggest issues are seating and timing. We always ask for a booth in an out-of-the-way corner, and order promptly so the meal doesn’t drag on. And if we need to run before eating (for example, after a cup-throwing incident), most restaurants will pack up orders to go. Parents may also want to ask for to-go boxes at the beginning of the meal, or bring their own stackable plastic containers to facilitate faster exits, if needed.
Consider ordering room service for those times when your child is content just to stay in their hotel room. Some Four Seasons properties offer special in-room dining menus just for kids with favourites like grilled cheese and chicken fingers. Marriott hotels offer an Eat Well Menu for Kids with fun options, like pancake lollipops and strawberries with cream served in a chocolate bowl, available through room service.
In Mesa, staff at the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch met my son’s needs by tethering his horse to a guide during a trail ride, and by cutting his meat into small pieces before serving him dinner. In Myrtle Beach, SkyWheel workers let our family skip the line after showing our Champion Autism Network (CAN) card. We were soon spinning high above the famous boardwalk and beach. In both cases, these gestures contributed to the vacation’s success.
More destinations are pushing for hotels, restaurants and attractions to think about accessibility for travellers with differences. Some businesses have even encouraged their staff to undergo sensitivity training to recognize and respond to guests with autism.
Certified hotels include: Grand Palladium Bávaro Suites Resort & Spa (Dominican Republic), Legoland Resort (Winter Haven, Florida) and Beaches Resorts (Turks & Caicos, Negril and Ocho Rios). As well, Karisma Hotels & Resorts announced in August 2022 that most of its properties have earned an Autism Ready designation from Autism Double-Checked (ADC). The hotel group with properties in Mexico and Jamaica plans to develop visitor guides for each of its resorts, designed for the autism community to plan successful trips.
MORE TRAVEL TIPS FOR PARENTS OF SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN
Plan ahead. Keep a copy of any prescriptions your child takes, along with contact information for his or her physicians and specialists handy. Also, pack extras of any essential items your child needs and have a checklist handy to make sure they aren’t left behind at the hotel or on the plane.
Prepare. Create a visual itinerary for your child to prepare him or her for the trip – everything from the airport experience to the planned activities, so there won’t be any surprises.
Bring along a goody bag to entertain the child while waiting at airports, restaurants, etc. Include books, stickers, snacks, water and small toys.
Schedule some downtime. Once you arrive at your destination, allow some time for settling in and getting everyone used to a new environment.
Tap into the expertise of your travel advisor to get the latest recommendations on destinations, attractions and hotels that go above and beyond to welcome children with special needs.