Your special needs child needs structure, consistency, and accommodations. You crave novelty, spontaneity, and relaxation. Can you get both? The answer is yes, with a few limits. Here are some tips for making it work.
Choose a vacation plan that you and your child can live with. If you have a child with special needs, a freeform adventure vacation with no set plan is a recipe for disaster. If spontaneity is important to you but overwhelming for your child, consider taking a separate adventure vacation, or hiring a babysitter for a day while you go exploring. Alternatively (and even better), prepare your child for a short open-ended adventure that expands his horizons without overwhelming him.
Keep it simple. Consider staying in one place rather than moving around. Stick with one activity per day. Why wear everyone out when the whole point is to relax?
Leave your anxieties at home. What if your child with special needs acts out in public? What if your mother-in-law makes snide remarks about your parenting skills? What if one of the activities you’ve planned is too much for your child? The reality is that few of these issues are serious enough to ruin a vacation, so why ruin your mood in advance?
Have a comfortable place to retreat to. Many families love to vacation together. While that can be fun with a special needs child, it can also get overwhelming. One good option is to say “yes” to the family retreat, but “no” to the idea of actually staying in the same house. That way, if your child needs a break or you want to create a more familiar home-like structure you can do so without creating a storm of negative comments or concerns.
Plan at least a few activities your child will love. Many special needs children love tradition and repetition. Give in to that for some small part of your vacation. Say “yes” to playing that same putt-putt course yet again, or having the same ice cream at the same place even if it was just “meh.” Having special events to look forward too can make it much easier to get through tougher moments.
Bring along accommodations. If you know your child will struggle without his favorite TV show and you’re not sure about cable reception, bring a DVD and DVD player for insurance. If your child needs sensory toys, special sheets, pillows, foods, or comfort items, bring them along. If someone questions you or suggests you’re babying your child, ignore them. They don’t know your child’s needs the way you do.
Always have a Plan B. Your child with special needs may have a terrific time doing a particular activity, or he may fall apart completely and have a temper tantrum. If things do fall apart, have a Plan B in place so that other members of your party won’t feel their day has been ruined. For example, if other children are included in the group, know in advance which adult will handle your special needs child and which will take charge of the rest of group. If you really need to leave early, have a plan for where you’ll go and how you’ll meet up again later.
Be fair to one another. No matter how carefully you plan ahead, there may be a good chance that someone will need to change their plans to accommodate a special needs child. If possible, be sure that both parents take turns staying home, leaving the restaurant early, or coping with judgmental relatives. Do your very best to be sure that everyone, siblings and parents included, get a chance to enjoy time doing what they like best. Sure, they may have to accommodate a special needs family member, but that shouldn’t ruin their vacation.