School’s out, different routines and round-the-clock care. Parents of children with special needs are faced with their biggest challenge of the year when it comes to the six long weeks of summer.
Sometimes the best plans are the most simple; a bus ride, a walk to the park or playing in the garden. Whatever you choose, the holidays must take in the needs of the whole family. Don’t be too ambitious; it will be exhausting for everyone. Some general preparation will make all the difference:
Holiday activties for children with SEN
First port of call is your council’s local offer website. Check out play schemes, and investigate local groups on the National Autistic Society and Mencap websites. These offer opportunities to try out new activities like climbing or roller-skating with families in the same position, or to book your SEN child into supported sessions. Speak to friends and other parents; join forces for days out and set up play dates. Get ideas from forums like Mumsnet on special needs and the Special Needs Jungle website.
Evenings spent on the internet is time well spent.
Create a calendar
Plot a weekly calendar, maybe shopping on Mondays, swimming on Wednesdays.
Then set out a daily task list with regular activities and set mealtimes, this will put routines in place. Include some quiet time, creative time and even time for schoolwork. Prepare your child for these changes and stick to routines as much as possible. Liaise with school so that similar timetables with the same strategies and visual supports are used at home. Put it on the wall, talk about it and make it familiar for all the family.
Taking children with SEN away for a holiday
Some parents put holidays away in the ‘too difficult to do’ box, but there are plenty of centres in the UK and abroad that are set up for families with a disabled or special needs child. These centres consider the whole family and can cater for specific needs of your child, both physical and sensory. Consider travel times (and traffic jams); remember, a holiday nearby is still a holiday.
If you’re going somewhere new, help others to understand your child’s needs, call ahead and speak to the centre or a rep.
If you are flying, check out our guide to the UK's airports which will tell you what assistance and facilities are available at the airport here.
Ask for help
Everybody needs a support network, talk to family and friends, plan ahead and enlist their help, even in small ways, like loading the car.
It’s important to look after yourself too, so use your calendar to manage your own time and stress. Accept that you can’t do it all and look at ways you can give yourself regular breaks.
Look at the Inspire Family Break grant that can be used to fund a short break holiday. If eligible, families can receive a payment and organise support themselves.
Look close to home too; can the grandparents babysit occasionally? Or can friends invite siblings for a sleepover once in a while? If stress levels do start to rise, try speaking to another parent who understands.
Once you have decided on a destination, make more specific arrangements and prepare your child in advance for the changes to come.
To avoid increased anxiety about a novel and unfamiliar experience, start by thoroughly preparing your child for what to 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. 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.
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.'
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 has published a social story to prepare your child for a flight, and offers a quiet space waiting room for those who struggle with sensory overload. Gatwick Airport has its own sensory room and a visual timetable to negotiate check in or landing. The special assistance team provides lanyards to alert staff to hidden disabilities.
Ask for drinks on the plane 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.
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.
Holiday resorts for children with special needs
In the competitive world of tourism, the market is wising up to the requirements of families with special needs. Everyone from individual gite owners and cruise companies to the giants like Tui are offering advisors, travel facilities and destinations to suit children who have additional needs, from access issues to neurodiversity. We’ve rounded up some options round the globe.
Holidays with an SEND child in the UK
Spectrum Holidays is a UK charity which works with holiday providers of static caravans, self-catering cottages and holiday homes, traditional lodges and glamping within the UK, to ensure the accommodation is suitable for people of any age with neurodiverse and sensory needs. Extras such as blackout blinds, bedrails and stair gates are all fitted in advance. Autism friendly glamping is promised by Leafyfields Glamping in Devon – the owners have their own experience of autism, so have tried and tested local attractions and can give you the low down. Pet therapy on site comes in the form of cats and miniature horses.
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 designed to give wheelchair users the opportunity to steer by using the tiller, and have lifts, hoists and specially equipped bathrooms.
The Hartlands in Shanklin, Isle of Wight, offers top notch self-catering accommodation for families with autism. The owners 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.
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 with autism, epilepsy, tourettes or similar conditions. Self-catering accommodation 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.
European holidays with an SEND child
Autism Family Holidays in France offers ‘relaxed, self-catering holidays in a safe, non-judgemental, peaceful environment’ to families with a child with autism or complex behaviours. Gitedordogne (gitedordogne.co.uk/autism-friendly-holidays/) is run by a family with experience of travelling with autistic youngsters, they offer 26 acres of forest, fields and lakes with a huge house with pool and games room, in central France, but best of all, understanding of the stress involved in holidaying with autism.
Can Costa Rural Holidays offers an understanding environment along with extras such as equine therapy and gluten/casein free foodstuffs. Accommodation is in a converted barn, 15 minutes from Girona airport, 20 minutes to the coast, and an hour by train to Barcelona.
Malcolm Reeve and Andy Mahoney have converted a derelict hotel in the hills above Faro in the Algarve into the relaxed resort Centre Algarve for special needs. It is set in the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, 20 minutes from Faro airport.
Go Beyond offers supported adventure holidays in France, Spain, Morocco, Greece and Scandinavia as well as 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 alone.
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 autism, behavioural difficulties, learning difficulties. The children have 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 worldwide for families with special needs children
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. Their adaptive programme can be tailored to individual needs.
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.
Centre Parcs also have disability friendly chalets but not all sites are fully accessible, so do check first.
Harriet Davis Trust has all singing all dancing accommodation - built by a family who know what children with complex needs actually need.