Let’s face it, if your crew includes a child with special needs, you are only likely to experience the brochure version of family holidays – adults beaming at each other lovingly over a chilled white wine, children splashing prettily in the pool – if you have a touch of heatstroke.
But there are ways to make the experience a little less stressful. We’ve asked parents who have been there and got the sun tan for their best tips.
Most of us love the novelty of holidays – new places, aromas, and trying an activity you have never done before – as well as the chance to throw schedules out of the window. Unfortunately for children with special needs, all this spontenaity is the opposite of joyous.
So start by thoroughly preparing your child for what they can expect. Show them interior pictures of the hotel or villa you will be staying in from websites, and use Google Street View to virtually walk around the resort.
Scour the internet for pictures of unfamiliar activities. Lesley Willis told her son, who has autism and Tourette’s, that they could go out on paddleboards from the hotel’s beach. 'This sent him into a panic, because he had never heard of this,' she says. 'So I found some images online to show him and he calmed down, and I was glad we had dealt with this before the holiday.'
It can be helpful to compile a booklet with pictures of the destination and planned activities, which you can keep going over in the weeks before the holiday. You can find travellers’ own pictures on Trip Advisor, which may be better if you child’s understanding is very literal and they may become upset if things do not look the same as in the glossy brochure pictures.
Planning for a flight
If your child cannot cope with queueing or all the clamour of check-in and security, you can book special assistance which will speed you through these areas. You need to pre-book this with your airline or tour operator 48 hours in advance. 'I struggled for years trying to manage my son, who has learning difficulties, in the enormous check-in and security queues at Gatwick airport, thinking that special assistance was only for people using wheelchairs,' says Louise MacInvoy. 'Last year I realised this could also be used by people with all types of special needs, and what a difference – we were ushered to the front of the check-in queue, and then through a side door into a fast-track security lane.'
Check your local airport’s website to see what they will offer. Edinburgh Airport can arrange a familiarisation visit to the airport ahead of travel – they will walk your child through the full check-in procedure, and through security, where staff will show them the equipment and explain the sights and sounds they will experience.
Manchester Airport has a video on its website, ‘Travel advice for parents and carers of children on the Autistic Spectrum’, which shows what you will see and hear, from arriving at the airport, going through security and through to returning back home.
Have drinks handy to give your child during the ascent and descent, as drinking can help to ‘pop’ ears blocked by air pressure changes.
If your child is unreliable around continence, and won’t understand that there are times during the flight when they cannot get out of their seat to use the toilet, think about using Pull-Ups or small adult incontinence products for the flight.
If your child has certain TV programmes they return to frequently and find comforting, download these onto a tablet from the iPlayer before the journey.
Tips for on the beach
If your child hates the sensory feeling of sand and sun cream, or likes the protection of a shelter, take a pop-up sun protection tent to the beach.
For younger children who are constantly roaming, a blow-up paddling pool will fit easily in your luggage. You can then inflate and fill it with water, toys, and child, and it will help to keep your child entertained on your spot of the beach. At the end of the day the water will be beautifully warmed by the sun, and you can use it to wash off sand before the journey home.
When children require constant vigilance, resentment can build up about who is doing the lion’s share. 'Set up a timetable,' advises MacInvoy. 'My partner and I have strict half-hour alternating slots, when one is on duty and the other gets to read or sunbathe uninterrupted.'
Tackling tourist attractions
Many attractions such as Disneyland have special passes for children with disabilities, which allow you to go to the head of the queue. Be sure to take proof of your child’s disability with you (such as a letter evidencing that the child receives disability benefits) even when this seems physically obvious. Resorts have cracked down following some unscrupulous people abusing the system.
Lunch venues are always packed to the gills, noisy, and it can take an age to get served – so taking a packed lunch and finding a quiet corner is a better bet.
Check the venues’ websites ahead of time so you can plot where the accessible toilets and other facilities you might need are. Disneyland has superb details on what each ride does so you can work out in advance which will be suitable for your child https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/guests-with-disabilities
Temper expectations is the watchword. 'It used to be my favourite aspect of a holiday, wandering along in the evenings, peering at menus and deciding where to eat, and then lingering over the meal,' says Sarah Lewis, whose 14 year-old son Jack is autistic. 'But we’ve had to come to accept that’s just not possible with Jack. We have to go in the first place we see, chow down, and get out. But on a couple of nights during the holiday my husband and I take it in turns to go out alone with the other children while one stays in with Jack, so we get some of that experience.'
If your child wets the bed, a waterproof sheet in the suitcase will be a lifesaver. 'It’s self-catering for me every time, and the first requirement is that it has a washing machine. I take a mattress protector, which prevents you being presented with a bill for a ruined mattress,' says Aileen Fisher.
Other parents use Pull-Ups for the duration of the holiday, and for children who are too big for these, you can buy small adult sized products from Boots.
See also our tips on flying with a special needs child.