My oldest son, Nathan, is six years old, and has severe cerebral palsy. What many people are surprised to learn is that Nathan has traveled to about 10 countries, including England, Thailand, Argentina, Brazil and even the Dominican Republic.
Nathan has always enjoyed every trip, and it has been incredibly beneficial to him from a developmental standpoint. As a parent, I would encourage any family with special needs children to travel as much as possible.
Of course, the first question in your mind is probably a big HOW? How do we manage the logistics of traveling with a non-verbal, non-ambulatory special needs child?
The answer isn't always simple, and what you need to do will be based on the special needs of your child, but let me tell you right now, travel is certainly possible.
Plan Ahead, Arrive Early
Whenever we travel, we call the airline and let them know we need wheelchair access. We also have our own wheelchair, which makes the process easier and more efficient; if your child needs one, bringing your own wheelchair can be very helpful.
One key note when it comes to traveling with a wheelchair: keep it with you as long as possible. Airlines treat it like luggage if you check it, and it could ultimately end up broken. It happened to us, and it’s not something that you will want to deal with.
We also take the time to let airport security know that we have fluids with us and that we’re traveling with our child’s medication, which, of course, he needs. It’s always taken us a bit more time to go through security, but most people are quite supportive and friendly while helping us through the process. On the rare occasion that we've encountered security or airline staff members that were rude, we've generally said something to management so that they’ll be more prepared in future situations when dealing with children with special needs.
Ask for Help
Once on the plane, we generally explain to people around us about our son’s needs. Of course, we don’t go into a long drawn out story, but it often helps to give people some information about what’s going on around them.
In many cases, people will offer their assistance and help with basic things – like making room for our child. Typically, we bring a special seat, called a Special Tomato Chair, which makes our son more comfortable during flights, but requires just a little bit of extra room in some cases.
Once the airplane lands, we’re often the first ones off. In some cases, we’re the last ones off. It works either way – we just want to make sure we’re not involved in the general mayhem of a large group of people exiting an airplane.
Consider Your Destination
When you arrive in your destination, it’s important to consider where you are and what you’re going to be doing. For example, when we've visited places like Canada, which really aren't all that much different than home in the United States, we've rented a car. This is helpful since we can take our time and make sure we have everything we need for a day trip.
In other places, we've had to rely on taxis, and we may need to take some special equipment. In general, we simply try to make sure that we have everything our son will need with us. From there, we really just have to go with the flow of travel since everything can’t be completely under our control.
For most people, the most difficult part of traveling with a special needs child is the actual travel, not the day-to-day stuff that occurs when you arrive in your destination. Once you have that figured out, you’re well on your way to a successful trip.
Of course, the information here was personal, and it may not all apply to your child. Nathan has cerebral palsy, so his needs are very different from those of a child with autism, for example. Before you plan a trip, always take your child’s needs into account and talk to your child’s doctor if you’re unsure about health and safety concerns of traveling abroad.