Expert Advice on Traveling with Children with Special Needs

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 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.


Don’t Be Anonymous: Be Political

Are you a Republican, Democrat Independent, or just another drifter?

The reality is that history has been less than kind to people with disabilities in the United States and abroad. We have been mostly shut out the political process. There was a point where people with disabilities and mental illness could not even vote in the United States. However, that is no longer the case. Individuals with disabilities have the right and privilege to vote for and support any candidate they wish. They can hope for them on issues that are important to them personally or national issues which they view as affecting a great deal of people.

While everyone has their reasons for supporting  a candidate or voting a certain way we will not address that here.

Here will talk about  the side-liners,  the whiners,  the complainers,   and bystanders.


Because it is this group that consistently tells others what is wrong with the political system and the politicians, yet never get involved in the process.   Don’t worry, we’ve heard all the excuses.

  • My Vote Doesn’t Make a Difference!
  •  Nothing I do will matter.
  •  No one can fight the corrupt political system.
  •  You can’t fight City Hall!

There is literally an excuse for every minute of the day.   We have learned to be helpless and doing for ourselves, and others.   We no longer fight,  for fear of our perceptions about the political system becoming a reality. Yet, there is no lack of constant complaining about those individuals, who while in power did nothing for the community.   It is not enough to react when situations happen.   In order for,  people with disabilities to gain the political traction and power  needed to overcome current social ills,  they must get involved.


How many times have you heard someone talk about the power of senior citizens,  African-Americans,  and Latinos or other groups?

These groups did not gain their political power by sitting home and thinking someone else would do it for them. We are in the fight of our lifetime.  A fight for  health care,  access,  employment,  and the right to be treated fairly and equally.   There are many things which divide the community as diverse as that of people with disabilities. However,  there is common ground in general issues that affect us all.  From discrimination  to  lack of real employment,  there are things we can come together on.  By doing this,  we can identify candidates that will work for us and not against us. But before any of that happens,  I need you to do one thing.

Register to Vote!

Be counted, and  once you are counted vote.   Never forget the difference your one vote can make.

Don’t Be Anonymous Be Counted!

Don’t Flop Your First Interview: Do This Instead

You did it!  You finally landed the job interview that you believe will get you to the next level. However, your nervous. You feel that your disability may put you at a disadvantage. Right?

The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to job interviews. This is especially true for individuals with disabilities. The individual’s disabilities may vary as may their needs on a job interview. So, what to do?

First Things First

Young man suit and tie in wheelchair
Young man in suit and tie in orange wheelchair.

Do not fall into the “woe is metrap of eternal failure!

It is so easy to become accustomed to feeling like no matter what we do, we’re bound to fail, and why not? Many of us have failed before. Many of us have failed miserably!  But you know what? There are countless numbers of famous people who failed and failed again.

Thomas A. Edison, was quoted to have said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.  when referring to his work on inventing the lightbulb and other things.

Albert Einstein now a household name, reportedly did not speak until the age of four and didn’t read into the age of seven. His teachers believed he was “slow” and “mentally handicapped.”

The list goes on and on. Ignore every negative feeling and suppress the urge to pity yourself. There are plenty of individuals waiting to do that for you. In reality, the biggest obstacle not only in securing employment, but life generally is one’s attitudes. Moreover, the ability to “throw in the towel”or give up at the slightest sign of discomfort or trouble.

Rethink yourself into a positive position.

What does this mean?

Simply put, if every thought one has about one’s abilities are negative, then the outcome will be negative. On the other hand, if one has a positive self you and internalizes that than that will come to the surface.  A job interview, is a place where your positivity can shine.  It is also a place, where negative thoughts and actions can have disastrous consequences.

Wow Them With Pizzazz

Say what?

Wow them with pizzazz?

Have you seen the movie or play ChicagoThere was a number in it called Mr. Cellophane, that is not the guy we are talking about here.  We’re talking about an individual who is ready to put themselves out in a positive and bright manner.

What do you do to get pizzazz?

First of all be yourself. Many individuals have lost opportunities because tried to hard. They tried to change the way they talk, walk or even listened.  An interviewer, can see through all that. Therefore, it is better to be you.

Next, make sure that you are the best version of you that you can be. Think about this, when you and your friends are having the most fun what you doing? Where are you? What are you talking about? That’s the best social version of you, now combine that with the best professional version of you. There you have it, your pizzazz!

Be Prepared

How does one prepare for a possibly life altering moment, such as a job interview?

The best way to prepare is to accentuate to positive and eliminate the negative.  Simple right?

Preparation is not simple. It is boring. It takes time. In some cases, it also will show how much we really want this job. I’m not talking about doing everything we are going to do because we’re going to get this job. I’m talking about doing everything we need to do because we want this job. Regardless of the outcome.

I have interviewed many people for positions. Some of these individuals were people with disabilities. I chose to hire some and not hire others. So I know from experience what I’m looking for in a qualified candidate.  Here are some quick tips that may help you getting ready for and going through the interview process.

  • Thoroughly research the company or place of employment you are interviewing with. If possible, try to find out who is interviewing you and see if there is anything you can learn about them. Sometimes, knowing what the company does, how they do it and what their ultimate goals are can help you answer questions, during the interview. In addition, knowing your interviewer is to can make you more comfortable, as well as, give you information which can help you connect in a personal way.
  • Know exactly where you are being interviewed and what time you need to be there.  If you are dependent on any type of public transportation, this is imperative.  Especially if the transportation service you use is shared others. If at all possible, try to arrange for door-to-door service on your interview day.  If you drive, try to conduct a dry run to the place of interview.  See how long it would take to get there on a day similar to your interview day.  In other words, if you are interviewing on a weekday and do your dry run on a weekend, the traffic patterns may be different.  Therefore, this may not be a good estimation of the time it would actually take you to get to your place of interview.
  • Be Clean! When it comes to job interviews this one is not only standard but should be at the top of the list.  If you are a person with a disability, where not just talking about body cleanliness.  We’re talking about your mobility equipment and any other devices you may use during the interview process. Think of it like this, I am an employer, I am going to trust you with my business and its reputation. As such, I want to hire someone who represents me in a good light.  If the interviewer, is distracted by dirty mobility equipment, old food, etc. they are not to be concentrating on my abilities.
  • Be part of the interview not a bystander. If you have thoroughly prepared then there is no reason why you should not have questions.  You should also be able to answer the questions in a thorough and complete manner. You should bring more to the table than your interviewers expect. This may include discussing things that you do for fun, such as hobbies or other interest. Of course, you do this when the situation presented itself.


It sounds simple but you’d be surprised at the amount of people that go to a job interview and never send a thank you note.  What is there to be thankful for if you did not get the job yet?  Be thankful for the interview. Two things to note, following up shows that you are truly interested in the job.  It also, tells the interviewer that you are the type of person who follows through, which is a very desirable quality in a job applicant.

There there is another reason to follow up after the job interview, it keeps your name current.  If the interviewer is, constantly talking to applicants about this job, it is important for them to remember you.


Here it is the day you’ve been waiting for, if you get a call, an email or letter which tells you that you either got the job or you didn’t.  On the one hand, you will be elated happy for the opportunity to showcase your abilities. On the other, you’ll be sad and disappointed because you were not given that opportunity. Either way, it’s your time to shine!

Every time, we have positive things happen to us we feel great. We have been taught that good things do not always happen, they may never happen. What we should learn is that every experience positive or negative is a learning experience. We learn through doing.  And by learning, prepare ourselves for next time, we take notes on things we could’ve done better.  Then we move on. The next interview.

Tips to a Successful Trip: Even If You Have a Disability

If you’ re a person with a disability and love to travel you may already know that airplane travel can be both frustrating and humbling. This is especially true with today’ s security climate and strict rules concerning what you can and can not bring on the plane. If you have not traveled on a plane before and have a disability, especially a physical, we hope this article will give you the tools you need to travel from point A to point B without too much hassle.

Tip To Make Your Travel Safe and Easy


Couple walking on beach with plane in the background
Attractive young couple walking on the beach with a seplane floating in the background

While destination is important while traveling for the purposes of this article we will only concentrate on airport to airport traveling. Meaning that we will talk you through what happens when you get from one airport to the other. We will in future articles talk about the destinations that we believe are accessible and enjoyable for   people with disabilities.


If you have a disability and need assistance at the airport or getting onto the plane (boarding) than the time to ask for the assistance is during the ticketing process.

Many people believe that they can wait to get to the airport to request any assistance that they may need.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

By  waiting to the last minute we take unnecessary risks, including the possibility of missing our flight.  A person in a wheelchair  or other mobility device who is unable to self-transfer, may need airport personnel to transfer them to a straight back wheelchair, wheel them onto the plane, and transfer them into the airplane seat.   This takes time and planning.Him and

Make sure the ticket agent is aware if you are traveling with, a wheelchair or scooter. All  wheelchairs and scooters that are not stow-able on board will be stowed underneath in the baggage compartment of the airplane. You will receive a ticket either from the gate agent or the ticket agent. One part of the ticket is attached to your wheelchair the other one you keep.

Inform the ticket agent if you will be traveling with a service animal or other special needs you will have on the plane. This includes, dietary restrictions, as well as special meals for religious reasons.


One of the most important things and one of the things least thought about during the travel experience is packing. If one is not organized during the packing stage of ones trip the odds are things will be forgotten or there will be a hefty price tag at the ticket counter for all the unnecessary things you’re bringing.

Today, many of the major airlines charge you for bringing one bag, 2 bags, or more. Some are starting to charge if you bring on more than one carry-on into the plane with you. Therefore, if you  wish to save some green you’d better pack light.

What to bring?

As people with disabilities there are things both medical and not that we use every single day. These are the things that are top-level on our packing list. For example, a quadriplegic may use splints, special utensils, straws, night-boots. Another individual, may use, special skin cream, medications, or a CPAP machine. These are things that the individual must have in order to be comfortable when vacationing.

As vacationers with disabilities you’ll bring things depending on the location you’re traveling to. Therefore if you’re going on a ski trip, you want to pack warm clothing, ski equipment, gloves socks etc. However, if you’re going on a Caribbean vacation, you want to pack light clothing, such as shorts, short sleeve shirts, suntan lotion (this may not be allowed in your carry-on pack with your bags) and comfortable shoes.   One may also want to pack mosquito repellents and  bug spray.

Many people today do not leave home without a multitude of electronic devices such as iPhone’s, iPad’s, tablets etc. You should  Think thoroughly about what exactly you will need and what type of  cell or internet service will be available while you are on vacation.  While it is a good idea to take at least one cell phone with you in Case Of Emergency,  do you really need every other electronic device?

What not to bring!

This is as important as anything you will put on your packing list. The temptation to bring, a pair of shoes for every outfit, matching sunglasses for every T-shirt or cologne and perfume for every occasion can be high. Bringing these things with you can also be costly. The more things you bring the more that your suitcases will weigh and the more you will be charged by airlines struggling to get every nickel and dime from you. Therefore, think like a hiker, if you do not need it and not bring it!

Getting to the Airport

Remember this is extremely important, especially if you need transfer assistance through the airport or help getting onto the airplane (transfer). If you drive again give yourself time with traffic, and remember to check out the airports website or information line concerning handicap parking, reduce rates, or links from parking decks to airport terminals. Most airport websites, have sections which discuss airport accessibility, parking, assistance, and rules and regulations.

What Do I Do at the Airport?

Many airports are massive to say the least. Some are so big that they have monorails which take you from the ticket counters to the terminal such as Orlando and Las Vegas. If you are a first-time traveler and have a disability or traveling with someone with a disability please give yourself plenty of time to get through the airport to your terminal.

If you are traveling alone and need assistance getting to the gate immediately tell the ticket agent at your airline that you will need help getting to the gate. If you need help once you are at the gate transferring from your wheelchair to and aisle (straight back) chair inform the ticket agent that you will need physical assistance transferring so that they can ensure that personnel are available at the gate for you.

Also alert the ticket agent if you will need assistance at the security checkpoint which may include removing your shoes, your bags and carry-ons etc. Although, they may have put this request in the system when you initially booked your tickets, do not depend on ticket agents or airport personnel to know or anticipate your needs. You must be your own best advocate.

When you check your suitcase make sure that things which could easily break are well packed or are taken with you as part of your carry-on luggage. Airport security can and will throw out any liquids which exceed their minimum requirements, yes even medication.

At this point if you have or are thinking of buying beverages such as water, sodas, juice be aware that they must be consumed before you get to the security check. Many airports offer beverages and eating facilities immediately after the security check. Therefore, our suggestion is that you buy food and beverages after going through security. Security will confiscate and throw out these beverages at the security point.

What to Expect the Security Checkpoint

For many travelers with a disability the security checkpoint can be very stressful and confusing. If you are ambulatory then you will go through the same processes most travelers do. You will be asked to empty your pockets all content take off your shoes, and store any bags, cameras, and computers in the conveyor belt which runs the items through a scanner viewable by security personnel. You will be asked to walk-through the metal detector and pick up your belongings on the other side if you are cleared.

If you use a wheelchair, your belongings including bags, computers cameras etc. and shoes will be run to the conveyor belt and scanned. You can ask for your bags to be hand checked if there’s sensitive or expensive equipment in them.

Note. You may be required to have a doctors note for such things as, CPAP machines, or other medical apparatus. Security personnel will ask you to join them in an open area where they will use their hands to pat you down if you are unable to stand. They may also use a hand metal detector called a wand to scan you for contraband. Most of the searches are thorough and other passengers we’ll see you be searched. If you feel uncomfortable at any moment or even before the search starts you may ask personnel to better down or search you in private.

There are rooms adjacent to search area or in some cases curtains provide privacy. Your wheelchair or scooter will be swabbed for chemical explosives by airport personnel. This usually means that a cotton like pad is rubbed on different parts of your wheelchair or scooter an then fed into a machine that analyses it for explosive residues or compounds. Once you wheelchair and your person have been thoroughly searched you may retrieve your items from the conveyor belt including shoes and belts and head to the gate.

Note on Service Animals:

If you use a service animal, your service animal must remain under your control and will be patted down. In addition, if you service animal wears a uniform this may be run through the scanner and then replaced on the animal.

It is important that you remain calm through this experience. Plan on cooperating fully with airport personnel as they are only doing their job to keep us safe.

Waiting at the Gate

While waiting at the gate you will find that there a number of restaurants and fast food places, including, coffee shops like Starbucks and franchise restaurants like McDonald’s. Many people find it better to purchase their food and bring it on the plane as it may be cheaper and sometimes the quality may be better.

When you arrive at your gate, tell the gate agent any special requirements you may have, such as, needing assistance to board the plane. Or in some instances, needing a guide to show you where your seat is. If you need to be transferred out of your wheelchair, scooter be specific with the agent as to what you need. For the most part if you are an individual that needs assistance such as a straight back so you will be boarded 1st. For example, if you are a 230 pound six-foot male and are in a power wheelchair and unable to assist in a transfer you will need:

– Two to three very strong and tall individuals to transfer you from your wheelchair to a straight back or aisle chair and roll the straight back through the plane to your seat. Once there, they will need to lift you from the straight back into your seat. This is sometimes easier when individual selects an aisle seat and the aisle seat. The armrest can usually lift out of the way. This is usually not the case on older planes. About airline seats

-Someone will have to take your wheelchair, tag it with the right papers, and boarded with the luggage underneath the plane.

* A Note about Seating: As you may know or have heard airline seats can be small, tight and uncomfortable for someone with a disability to spend numerous hours. If you use a wheelchair cushion specially made to prevent pressure sores consider using it on the airplane seat. Some people use a board under the cushion to keep the cushion flat as you would normally have it on your wheelchair.

What to Do When You Arrive at Your Destination

Make sure that the flight attendant knows you will need your wheelchair brought to the gate before you unload. Make sure that you request exactly what you need, if at anytime you feel uncomfortable with the personnel that has been provided to you ask for a supervisor.  This point cannot be stressed enough.   Never settle for less than full quality service. Do not be embarrassed to requests that a supervisor be on site while you’re being transferred for your wheelchair/scooter  is being brought up.

Unfortunately,  this is the time when you find out if your wheelchair/scooter has made the trip in one piece.  Make sure that you check your equipment thoroughly.  Once you are transferred into it drive it around and look for any missing parts or broken pieces.  If you find that your chair/scooter is damaged you should fill a report out with the supervisor immediately.

If your service was great make sure that you let someone know. However, if your service was less than desirable and you feel that you were mistreated or ignored,  then you should file a complaint with the airline expressing exactly what happened and your full experience. Remember, people disabilities pay the same ticket price that everyone else does, and deserve to have a positive experience.

Enjoy Your Trip!

Remember this is extremely important, especially if you need transfer assistance through the airport or help getting onto the airplane (transfer). If you drive again give yourself time with traffic, and remember to check out the airports website or information line concerning handicap parking, reduce rates, or links from parking decks to airport terminals. Most airport websites, have sections which discuss airport accessibility, parking, assistance, and rules and regulations.


People. Power. Progress.