When your child has physical or cognitive issues, vacations can be tricky. Read these travel tips from parents who’ve been there
Illustration Credit: Marta Antelo
B.C. (before children), my husband, Jack, and I quit our jobs and backpacked around the world for eleven wild and wonderful months. Becoming parents did little to lessen our travel lust. Over the years, we’ve taken our two daughters camping, cottaging, hiking, cruising and flying. Since our youngest, now 18, has autism, we’ve dealt with bumps along our journeys — especially when Talia was younger. On airplane flights, she often screamed inconsolably. And one summer day, high on a Vermont mountain chairlift, Talia panicked, struggled out of our arms and almost plummeted to the earth. But what we remember most are the beautiful moments: whitewater rafting through a Colorado canyon, horseback riding on mountain trails, and silently watching the sun set over loon-filled lakes.
With extreme planning, creativity and a sense of humour, families like ours have amazing adventures. Below, parents of kids with various special needs share their sweetest travel tales.
Flying to a far destination
One month before their Italy adventure, Katharine Harrison of Toronto gave her son Max (then 11) an Italian phrase book. Because of a congenital birth defect, Max has spinal damage. Although he walks with the help of canes and braces, he tires easily, so a wheelchair works best for longer distances and travel. “I told him he’d be our guide,” she says. On the trip, he expertly ordered pizza on the piazza and asked locals for the nearest loo. With a rented car, the two explored the countryside, visited little towns and dined at outdoor cafés. “He loved being part of a funky, different kind of world,” says Harrison.
Not that their European adventure was glitch free. At the car rental agency, they waited three hours to find a vehicle to accommodate Max’s wheelchair. And the cobblestone streets, though quaint, made pushing and riding in a wheelchair exhausting. “Budget extra for taxis,” advises Harrison.
• For extra help and advice, use a travel agent rather than booking online.
• “Don’t be a surprise at the airport,” says Harrison. When reserving, explain you’re travelling with someone who uses a wheelchair (or has special needs).
• Ask staff if you can join a shorter line at the airport.
• Bring a photocopy of your child’s health binder, with doctors, medical history and hospital discharge summaries, advises Sarah Watt of Guelph, Ont. Her son, Ben, seven, has Hirschsprung’s disease and has an ileostomy — a surgical opening in the small intestine leading outside the body. Ben wears an ileostomy bag that collects stool and must be drained, cleaned and changed often. For a two-week European trip, she packed two months of medical supplies, and still ran out. Now before travelling, Watt researches online where they can buy medical supplies at their destination. She also suggests carrying a description of your child’s conditions written in the country’s language.
• For a long flight, ask your doctor if your child could use medication to keep calm, suggests Pauline Busby of Guelph, Ont. “Be sure to test the meds before you leave,” she cautions. When her son Aidan (who has an intellectual disability, autism and cerebral palsy) was eight, they travelled to Australia to visit family. On the flight, Aidan had an adverse reaction to the meds, becoming “hyper and agitated.”