Why Vacation Can Be Tough for Kids With Special Needs and Their Families — A Parent’s Perspective
The past four months have felt like four years, and when our special needs daughter is done with ESY, we are taking a much-needed, socially-distanced family getaway. But while my family and I definitely need a vacation, we know it won’t be so relaxing for our daughter.
For neurotypical family members, vacation can be a welcome break from the routine and structure of everyday life. It may also include a change of scenery like a beach or campground. While pleasant for some, this type of challenging environment makes impossible some of the accommodations the special needs child is used to. While they may only be away from the comforts of home for a short time, the special needs child may feel thrown into chaos and overwhelmed by new expectations like:
- Sharing a room
- Enduring loud music
- Eating unfamiliar food
- Spending extra time outdoors
- Coping with bug bites or sunburn
- Sitting still at a restaurant (while wearing a mask!)
- New sensory experiences
For many kids with special needs, structure and consistency are key for daily success. Special needs children may have a hard time managing their own schedules, routines, and expectations. When structure is imposed in the form of predictable routines and expectations, life makes more sense. It's much easier to function happily when children have a routine to guide them through their day. In conjunction with structure, consistency can help kids feel that they're in control of their world. This decreases the stress and anxiety that can cause emotional outbursts and upsets.
Special needs children are also used to accommodations that reduce sensory challenges, help support their daily activities, or just make their lives easier at home and school. For example, schools may use incandescent rather than fluorescent lights in the classroom to lessen sensory challenges. At home, you may give your child access to the TV to help with the transition from school to home. You may cut all the tags out of their clothing. Or you may buy special foods for a picky eater. These accommodations all help to smooth out the emotional and sensory “bumps in the road” that the special needs child feels more acutely than the neurotypical child.
Life for a special needs child has more than its share of challenges. The additional challenges of a vacation can send some kids into emotional upheaval. Remember that the structure, consistency, and accommodations you provide as a parent can go a long way to help kids manage their unique difficulties while on vacation. Your positive, proactive support and empathy for the difficulties they are experiencing can make all the difference.