Grandchildren With Special Needs: 10 Practical Travel Tips

Hitting the road with a loved one with special needs? Don't leave home without reading these pointers.

By Phyllis Karas

This is our first article focusing on traveling with grandchildren who have special needs. Read the second here.

Grandparents of children with special needs are often concerned about the challenges of traveling with their grandchildren. Preparing for the particular requirements of a grandchild, worrying about handling medical emergencies, or dealing with behavioral outbursts — all can be daunting. However, unless your grandchild's doctor or parents have ruled out travel, try to put your fears to rest.

Everyone needs to get away, especially with a loving grandchild. Adequate preparation — practical and psychological — can minimize most problems. Here are some suggestions:

1. Plan ahead.

Family travel writer Eileen Ogintz of takingthekids.com advises grandparents to confer with management at their destination before they arrive. "Most places will welcome the kids, but you should be forthright with everyone about your particular situation."

  • Imagine all the possible trouble spots and plan for them. For instance, when booking a hotel for a child in a wheelchair, explain your needs, and confirm the room is accessible for the disabled.
  • Know exactly where the hospitals and necessary doctors are located at your destination.
  • Do your paperwork. Bring with you all the doctors' notes, parents' permission slips, pediatricians' phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. If you're taking your grandchild out of the country, include a notary's letter from the parents giving you permission to seek medical care for the child.
  • Pack necessary medications and prescriptions.

2. Make friends with the staff.

Ogintz suggests, "At a resort or on a cruise, introduce yourself to the medical staff as soon as you arrive."

3. Stick to your grandchild's routine as much as possible.

Dr. Mark Mandell, a pediatrician in Salem, Mass., says, "You need to remember they're all kids and many can't tolerate the same level of activity as an adult." Pack your grandchild's special foods and favorite toys to make it easier to adjust to the new environment.

4. Book a corner table.

Rhonda Reed from Trips, Inc., which deals exclusively in special-needs travel, suggests choosing a spot in a restaurant that allows some privacy, "especially if your grandchild is a messy eater or needs to be spoon-fed, even though he is not a baby." She says, "This might make it easier for your child to concentrate on eating and not be overstimulated by the other children in the restaurant."

5. Have patience.

Liz Honan, owner of Budget Friendly Travel says, "As much as we feel things and can express them, sometimes these kids can't. It's just as frustrating for them. And keep a sense of humor. Spoil them."

6. Prepare for stares.

Strangers gawking at their grandchildren with special needs may upset grandparents. Honan advises, "Smile politely and use the opportunity to educate people on the disability. People just don't get it. They don't mean to be rude."

7. Accept the fact there will be times your grandchild might not behave.

Dr. Mandell recommends having a plan for a quick exit when the first hint of a tantrum does occur. If you have to carry a screaming child out of an amusement park, simply do it; ignore the looks you might get.

8. On a family trip, carve out individual time with each grandchild, and don't neglect the parents.

"My husband and I did whatever we could to give our daughter and son-in-law some free time," recalls Rosemarie Spinney of Dover, N.H., who rented a California beach house with her special-needs grandson, his nurse, brother, and parents. "Some nights," Spinney says, "they went out for dinner and we stayed with the boys and the nurse. Some days, we took Drew [who was born with a form of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a progressive neuromuscular disease] for a long walk on the boardwalk and another time we took Trevor to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and amusement park."

9. Don't underestimate the difficulties of a trip with a grandchild with special needs.

Ariel Segal, MSW, assistant director of The Guided Tour, Inc., which provides vacation programs for persons with developmental disabilities and mental retardation, urges grandparents to "make sure they are comfortable taking care of their grandchild during this trip." He suggests taking a helper, "someone who knows the grandchild well and can assist in areas the grandparent might not be able or accustomed to help in."

10. Allow some time for yourself.

Ogintz says, "Grandparents often are not used to being around active little kids. Those with special needs or challenges can be all that much harder. You need to build in breathing space or respite so you are not exhausted."

Most of all, try to treat your grandchild with special needs normally: Have fun together on your trip. "In so many ways," Dr. Mandell says, "they are no different from any other child wanting to have a good time with a grandparent. Make all your preparations and then have a terrific time."

"Any vacation with family is wonderful," adds grandmother Spinney, "but with a grandchild with special needs, it is even more so, well worth the extreme preparations."

So pack your bags, grandparents, and take off with those grandchildren with special needs. Their lives and yours will be richer for that very special vacation.

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