If you have a child with special needs, holidays for you may have meant only more stress, as you’ve grappled with unsuitable accommodation, kids clubs which your child is barred from attending, and the gawping faces as your child has a meltdown.
But things are improving, as everyone from individual gite owners to cruise companies realises there is a market in catering for the type of families who need a holiday more than anyone. We’ve rounded up some options around the globe.
Holidays with an SEND child in the UK
Autism Family Holidays offers ‘relaxed, self-catering holidays in a safe, non-judgemental, peaceful environment’ to families with a child with autism or complex behaviours. Run by Andi, who taught young people with additional needs for 30 years, and husband Will, who oversaw disability awareness as a police officer. Set on Wales’ Llyn Peninsula, the cottage sleeps six and is in easy striking distance of beaches and narrow gauge railways. The couple will stock up the cottage with groceries before you arrive, and will offer limited supervision of SEN children. There is even a social story on the website.
Autism friendly glamping is promised by Leafyfields Glamping – the owners have their own child with autism, so have tried and tested local attractions and can give you the low down. Accommodation comes in ready pitched bell tents sleeping four, and safari tents sleeping six, in the Devonshire village of Ashill. Safari tents have their own kitchen, toilet and shower facilities, and have a cubby play area providing a place of refuge. Pet therapy on site comes in the form of cats and miniature horses.
Also offering the benefit of personal experience are the owners of Helsey Cottages, who have two sons with ASD, and offer two self-catering holiday cottages on the North East Lincolnshire coast. Each cottage sleeps 4/5 and is all on one level. Equipment including a shower wheelchair, mobile hoist, bed raiser and toilet seat raiser can be supplied. No fear about being presented with a bill for a mattress – if night time continence is an issue, they will provide suitable bedding.
Purpose-built for wheelchair users, wide-beam canal boats can be hired for messing about on the Kennet and Avon Canal. The Bruce Trust has a fleet of four hire boats sleeping between six and 12. All have been designed to give wheelchair users the opportunity to steer by using the tiller, and two have a remote steering device that enables someone to steer from their wheelchair, using a joystick. All of the boats have lifts, hoists and specially equipped bathrooms.
The Hartlands in Shanklin, Isle of Wight, offers top notch self-catering accommodation for families with an autistic member. The owners have an autistic child, and have thought of everything – there’s an indoor swimming pool, a sensory room, a cinema, IT room, games room as well as a gym and sauna. The guest log book is published online, with countless reviewers describing how their family has been able to relax for the first time in years. Apartments sleeping three to eight are available.
The Thomas Centre is named after a young man who changed his family’s ideas about holidays, and led them to create a holiday park specifically for families where a member has ASD or similar conditions. Self-catering accommodation with two to four bedrooms is set in 25 acres near the Lincolnshire coast. The bungalows all have wheelchair access and wet rooms. There are a host of facilities on site so there is no pressure to go elsewhere – there’s an indoor heated pool which you can even book for private use, a play barn, sensory area, pedal go-karts and track; and frazzled parents can book beauty and massage appointments. Nearby there are attractions which may tickle some special interests, including steam railways, castles, and the chance to see Lancaster bombers at RAF Scampton’s museum.
Deep in the Peak District, looking out over peak and dale, Hope Cross Cottage is a fully accessible ground floor cottage. The cottage has a twin bedroom with profiling bed and electric tilting bed and a large wet room equipped with a self-propelling shower chair and mobile hoist. There is a second double bedroom. All the doors have low thresholds and easy open handles, and there are wide level paths and lighting around the exterior. There are two other cottages on site, all set in six acres around a 17th century farmhouse.
Close to the port of Fowey in Cornwall, South Torfey Farm has a group of holiday cottages which includes the accessible Honeypin. All on one level, it has en-suite wet-floor showers with support rails to both bedrooms. One room has a fully adjustable electric bed with optional side rails, and a self propelled shower chair and a light weight collapsible wheel chair for day trips can be provided. The site has a swimming pool and sauna room which you can book by the hour for private use. The pool is partly above ground allowing entry from a seated position, and there’s a hydraulic seat lift.
European holidays with an SEND child
Run by English parents with an autistic daughter, Can Costa Rural Holidays offers an understanding environment along with extras such as equine therapy, provision of gluten/casein free foodstuffs, and a supply of familiar videos. Accommodation is in a converted barn which has two bedrooms sleeping up to five, and a pool shared with the owner. It is 15 minutes from Girona airport, 20 minutes to the coast, and an hour by train to Barcelona.
Malcolm Reeve and Andy Mahoney heard at first-hand how difficult it was to take family holidays when your child has special needs – Malcolm was CEO at Columbus School and College, Andy organised transport for the pupils. This led them to convert a derelict hotel in the hills above Faro in the Algarve into the specialist Centre Algarve holiday centre. The two-acre centre has 14 rooms, two of which have ensuite hygiene rooms with hoists, hygiene beds, and showers. It also has an American-themed diner, soft play/sensory room, swimming pool, paddling pool, and a host of animals including a family of meerkats. It is set in the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, 20 minutes from Faro airport.
Mark Warner offers one-to-one care for children with special needs from British nannies at two of its resorts, allowing you to have some down time. Choose between Lakitira Beach Resort on the Greek island of Kos, and Phokaia Beach Resort in Foca, Turkey. Slots are limited so book well ahead, and it’s essential to talk to the reservations team before booking to discuss your requirements.
Go Provence offers supported adventure holidays in the south of France. Set in the Gorges du Verdon, the centre offers themed holidays including ski school, wolf tracking, and school of rock. You can go along as a family, or carers can be provided so a teen can holiday there alone (and the company can also offer you a villa nearby for peace of mind).
Package holidays in Greece specifically designed for families with an autistic member are offered by A Million Senses. Set up by three autism professionals, the company uses autism friendly hotels, such as 4 star The Semantron Hotel at Patra on the mainland – a former 19th century monastery which has a spa and sits 350m from the beach. There are other options on the islands of Corfu, Crete and Skiathos. Each holiday includes six hours per day of activities for the autistic child, cared for by support workers.
Le Fosso welcomes visitors with both learning and physical disabilities to its converted stone built Breton farmhouse and cider house. Accommodation ranges from an apartment for seven people, to full rental of the six and eight bedroomed buildings for an extended family gathering. You can choose to self-cater or take half or full board. The whole site is accessible, and there are roll-in showers and support bars in all the bathrooms and wide doors on all rooms. Bed and table raisers are available, and other specialist equipment required can be hired for you. It is one hour’s drive from the Brittany port of St Malo.
Villa Ampelitis in Paphos is an option out of season as well as in high summer, as it has an indoor heated pool, central heating and log fire. It is set deep in countryside with no immediate neighbours, but within easy reach of the beaches at Paphos. The pool has a hoist, and there are wheel in wet rooms. The main villa has four bedrooms, and there’s an option to add on further accommodation in two studios.
With the correct equipment and instruction, everyone can enjoy the thrill of the mountains, says the European Snowsport Ski Centre in Verbier. It offers both, so that children with sensory, cognitive, or physical difficulties can enjoy the mountains alongside their family. Instructors are experienced in working with children with physical or learning disabilities, and they have a wide range of adaptive equipment including bi-skis, visual impairment bibs, tethers and loading equipment for lifts, and so on.
Skiing4all runs year round skiing and activity holidays exclusively for children with special needs in the Austrian resort of Zell am See. Headed by a British psychologist and ski instructor, they offer programmes for children with all types of SEN including ASD, behavioural difficulties, learning difficulties. The children have 5.5 hours of activities each day, which might be skiing, sledging, horse-riding or lama trekking, with a one-to-one instructor. Siblings can join in, or the rest of the family can ski elsewhere in the resort.
Holidays with an SEND child worldwide
If a 12-mile beach lapped by clear turquoise waters, coupled with a 45,000 square foot waterpark, all-inclusive meals and activities might be just the ticket, try Beaches’ Turks and Caicos resort. The company has put all of its staff through autism awareness training to ensure that they are ‘non-judgemental, friendly and accommodating to all guests’. Families with children with autism and other special needs are promised a specialised service and custom dining options.
Royal Caribbean says it is an autism friendly cruise line, and it offers assistance such as priority boarding, dietary accommodations, and exceptions to its toilet-trained policy for kids clubs on all cruises. It also has ‘Staffed Cruises’ on certain departures around the Americas, which provide extra professionally trained staff, respite sessions, and private activities and sessions.
Smugglers Notch, Vermont can provide one-to-one or two-to-one support for children with special needs, allowing them to take part in skiing, bi-ski and snowboard groups. Adaptive equipment is available, and there’s a choice of half or full day lessons. Accommodation is in one to five bedroom condominiums, and you can choose one at the heart of the resort or in a quieter wooded area.
On idyllic Curaçao, in the Dutch Caribbean, Dolphin Suites offers accommodation purpose-designed for people with special needs. It’s a fully accessible site, and you can hire wheelchairs, adjustable beds, medical equipment, and care assistants. The resort even has its own dolphin therapy centre, and there are daily shows at the neighbouring Sea Aquarium.
Tour operators for special needs holidays
Disabled Holidays arranges holidays at accessible hotels and hire of any specialist equipment you need at resorts in the UK, US and the Balearics.
Butlins has a designated special needs co-ordinator who will help organise your holiday, and inclusive kids clubs.
Enable Holidays offers accessible hotels in North and South America, the Caribbean, Egypt, and across Europe, as well as villas in Europe and the US. It will also provide assistance at the airport, equipment hire, and a professional carer if needed.