Going on Vacation with a Child with Special Needs

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Erica Kearney, M.A, BCBA, LABA

Have you ever returned home from a vacation feeling more exhausted than when you left? It’s not uncommon for many families, including parents who have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or another developmental disability. Although vacations are meant to be opportunities to relax and enjoy fun activities with the family, they can be stressful if you have a child with special needs.
With a little advance planning, however, your next vacation can be one that every member of the family will enjoy.
If your child has a difficult time with changes in routine, try preparing him or her for the upcoming vacation by using a calendar or social story depicting the changes. You can also create a schedule that shows the different activities that will occur during the vacation. Talk about the vacation schedule every day.
As awareness increases about ASD and other developmental disabilities, so do the services that locations provide to support children and adults with special needs. Before going on vacation, call your destination to see what types of accommodations are available. Theme parks sometimes offer speed passes so children and adults with disabilities do not have to wait in long lines. Most hotels will provide rooms suitable for your family’s needs. And many movie theaters offer sensory-friendly movie showings.
It’s a good idea to take a mini vacation before trying a longer time away. For example, if you want to plan a beach trip for a week, try making a day trip to the beach first. This will give you a sense of the things that may go well, or not so well, before you spend your money on a week-long trip. Likewise, if you want to take your family to Disney World, but aren't sure if that kind of trip will work for your child, try visiting a local amusement park before flying out of state.
These days, flying can be stressful for everyone. It involves getting past security, finding the right gate, making your connection, and worrying about losing your luggage. Again, you should plan ahead. At some airports, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents will let you and your child with special needs have a practice session at a security checkpoint. They can recommend a certain day of the week and time of day for your practice session – a time when there will be fewer people and distractions to upset your child.
Be sure to pack a "vacation backpack" that you will keep with you at all times. In the backpack, carry supplies for emergency situations as well as items your child likes such as favorite snacks, toys, and games, and, perhaps, an iPad (loaded with favorite games or videos). Be sure you pack some extra clothes in case your child gets dirty or wet.
Bring a helper. Invite your favorite service provider to go on vacation with you. He or she will understand your family dynamics and can provide the support your family needs during your vacation.
Always have a back-up plan. Problems can occur even on the most carefully planned vacations. If your activities involve the outdoors, remember that meteorologists are only correct 50 percent of the time! Have a plan if the weather changes. Fun indoor activities can include indoor trampoline parks, waterparks, glow golf, bowling, and going to the movies.

Taking a family vacation with child with special needs can be challenging, but with a little advanced planning, a vacation backpack, a helper, and a “Plan B,” your whole family can have a wonderful, relaxing experience.
Erica Kearney, M.A., BCBA, LABA, is Executive Director of the May Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit