By: Kelly Rouba
With warm weather just around the corner, many people are starting to plan their summer vacations. While most families can’t wait to get away for a few days, parents of children who have autism or other special needs often dread the idea of traveling, opting for a hassle-free “staycation” instead.
“We have had to cut many vacations short because (our sons) just needed to get home,” said Sue Tuckerman, a mother of three teenage boys, including twins who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). “I think that recognizing that traveling can be really stressful to some people is important. What is fun for most people is often not so much fun for kids with anxiety and or sensory issues.”
To help parents like Tuckerman be able to take the vacations they’ve always desired, special education professionals and certified travel consultants Jesemine Jones and Ida Keiper created a unique travel program called Starbrite Kids through their company Starry Night Travel, LLC.
“Starbrite Kids is a program that provides parents the help and support needed to make travel not only possible but a rewarding and enriching experience,” Keiper said. “Throughout the years, we had heard repeatedly how difficult it was for parents to travel with their child with special needs. Hearing this and our belief that all children should be afforded the same opportunity to travel led us to open our travel agency and write books for parents.”
According to their brochure, the Starbrite Kids program gives parents a pre-trip questionnaire in order to assess what special provisions are needed before traveling. Families are also given a list of hotels, resorts, and cruise lines that are willing to make accommodations as well as a list of tips to help them prepare for traveling.
The program offers a simple, step-by-step approach for parents to follow with their children, Keiper said. “We take you through the 5 D’s of travel: Dream, Determine, Dry Run, Departure, and Destination. In Dry Run, we apply evidence-based strategies to common travel concerns.”
One concern many parents of children with ASD have is that the child will wander off. “Safety is a huge concern for parents when they travel,” Keiper said, adding, “We suggest that parents think about the interventions that they use in their everyday life to deal with this behavior, (and) then modify them to meet the parameters of your trip.”
Tuckerman agrees. “It is very important to remember that if there are safety issues at home then they will be an issue on vacation. Being aware of the doors, windows, and water sources are very important. Also, bring door chimes and any other safety devices that you may need,” she said.
Keiper offers some additional safety tips for parents to keep in mind when traveling with children who have special needs:
- Have a secure identification system-
There are a variety of methods on the market. You can use an ID bracelet, clothing with identification markings, or non-permanent tattoos and GPS high tech systems, to name a few.
- Safeguard your child and surroundings-
Alert kits are available at some hotels. If not, purchase a portable battery operated motion detector alarm system that can be placed on doors and windows in your cabin or hotel room.
- Identify and teach safety rules-
Identify the safety rules you need to address with your child. Phrase rules in terms of what your child should do, and be sure to consider your child’s abilities and age. The rules you identify will reflect where you are traveling. Teach your child safety rules, and reinforce the rule on a regular basis. Look for teachable moments to reinforce safety rules so your child will know what to do in a real life setting.
- Refer to available resources-
An excellent resource available for parents is The Big Red Safety Tool Kit offered by the National Autism Association. The FBI also provides a free app for parents who have iPhones and Android operating systems.
More tips like the ones above can be found in Keiper and Jones’ guidebooks, Starbrite Traveler: A Travel Resource for Parents of Children with Special Needs and Starbrite Traveler: Destinations for Kids with Special Needs East Coast Edition. Also, “our new book, Autism & Travel: Strategies for Kids to Enjoy an Awesome Experience will be available in mid-April 2014. In addition, we are currently working on our third book, Starbrite Traveler: Destinations for Kids with Special Needs – West Coast Edition,” Keiper said, noting, “A portion of the proceeds of our books is donated to children’s charities.”
Parents who purchase the books will learn ways to address challenging behaviors, what safety precautions to take, how to identify what special provisions are needed for their child, and what destinations make accommodations.
Thus far, “feedback has been excellent not only from parents of children with special needs but also educators who have used our books in their classroom,” Keiper said. “Parents report that they find our books very well organized, comprehensive, and parent-friendly. In particular, they find the questionnaires, timelines, family planners, and interactive activities very helpful to plan a successful trip.”
Since the Starbrite Kids program wasn’t around when Tuckerman’s sons were younger, she learned a few things over the years when it comes to making traveling easier for her sons—some of which may help other parents of children with special needs. Tuckerman suggests:
- Choosing a familiar destination-
“Going places that they are familiar with is the easiest for us,” Tuckerman said. “Since we have been going to the family shore house since they were babies, the shore is one of most relaxing vacations. That being said, there are still times that anxiety kicks in and one of them will decide last minute that they don’t want to go.”
- Going on day trips-
Tuckerman has found her sons seem to enjoy day trips because it doesn’t involve a hotel stay. “The thought of sleeping somewhere other than their own home causes a ton of anxiety. If we do stay at a hotel, we stay at the same hotel chain every time because generally they are all decorated the same and have the same amenities so they know what to expect,” she said, adding, “If I had known when they were younger that they would develop such anxiety about going to new places, I would have made more attempts to expose them to new places.”
- Preparing children ahead of time-
At times when Tuckerman and her husband do decide to take a trip somewhere, they try to prepare the twins as best as possible. “Familiarizing them with where we will be visiting is helpful. Promotional videos, websites, and such can be great, but recognize that there is always a fine line between preparing and providing information that will cause anxiety.”
- Driving instead of flying-
The Tuckermans have also found that driving to their destination is less stressful than flying. “We drove to Florida twice. That allowed us to bring all of (the boys’) stuff, and it allowed them to stay in a familiar place. Even when we visited places in Florida, if things got hectic, we always had our own car with us.”
- Keeping it simple-
“Not pushing too much or stretching (children) too thin is very important,” Tuckerman cautions. “Although going to the same place and doing the same things over and over again seems boring, the kids love it. We do try to stretch things. For instance, our sons would prefer to go to the same pizza place every night of vacation. We try to compromise and do that for three nights and then try something new on one night, recognizing that it may be difficult. Always having favorite activities on-hand is very important. For us, that would be iPads, laptops, paper, and crayons, etc.”
By incorporating these tips, it can help make for a better vacation, Tuckerman advises. “We try to take the perspective that when the kids are happy on vacation, so are we. It may not be our idea of a dream vacation but again, if the kids are happy so are we.”
To learn more about how to make traveling with children who have special needs easier, visit www.starbritetraveler.com. Keiper also invites parents to contact them to let them know what destinations they have found to be particularly “special needs friendly.”
ODO/AIR Autism Airport Program
The Open Doors Organization recently announced that on March 13, they will kick off a new partnership with Autism Inclusion Resources Inc. (AIR) at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. AIR is a non-profit organization based out of Philadelphia that aims to help families affected by autism so they can travel and participate fully in their communities.
As part of the Autism Airport Program, a clinician is assigned to help each family develop strategies for traveling with their child. Families get to experience checking in with luggage, going through security, traveling to the gate, boarding the plane, and having a snack on board.