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The Key to Traveling with a Child with Special Needs

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
06/05/18  12:50 PM PST
special needs

Summer is coming. The pools are open and schools are letting out and airlines are posting “last minute getaway deals!!!” all over the internet.

I am on my couch, googling “travel backpack-special needs-forty plus pounds.” We are, deep breath, taking a family vacation to Colorado in July. Colorado is the land of my childhood—it’s where creeks are always cold and the air is free of humidity and the marmots sun themselves like cats on the boulders. It is white water rafting and late-night ice skating and the best tacos in the world at a hole-in-the-wall dusty saloon.

But that is the Colorado of my childhood and I am in the business of preparing for the Colorado of my children’s childhoods, my oldest of which has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair.

Different strokes for different folks. So, I am researching the hiking backpack that my oldest can sit comfortably in while we explore the trails. And I am researching water seats that we can take on a float trip down the river. And I am purchasing neck pillows for all the kids for the three-hour plane ride and three-hour drive that will finally get us to the river and the lake and the mountains I still dream of when I dream of being a kid.

Vacations are a different animal with kids, whether they have special needs or not. Forget the sleeping in and trendy restaurants with actual tablecloths and a waitlist. And forget winging it with the packing and planning and the daily schedule of events. I am both travel agent and tour guide. But I am also a mom who wants to have fun and yes, gasp, relax a little bit. And I also want my kids to have fun.

I want my son’s memories of Colorado to be just as full of adventuring as mine are. I want him to be able to close his eyes and smell the pine and the sunscreen and the heat. I want him to know what it is to let his legs dangle hundreds of feet in the air on the chairlift on his way to the top of the mountain. I want him to play horseshoes and make s’mores and roll the wheelchair around the Frisbee golf course. In short, I want it to be filled to the brim with new experiences. This is how we do it on the special needs front.

special needs

Preparation plus bravery plus closing your eyes and throwing yourself over the cliff into vacation-land.

This, however, can be exhausting. Confession: we have tried this trip once before and it was a major fail. Two years ago, when he was four and my twins were two, we trekked out to that hallowed ground and…the airline lost part of his wheelchair…and our luggage. The altitude wreaked havoc with naps and bedtime. I landed in urgent care with a sever sinus infection. The hiking backpack we had purchased was already too small for him. We holed up in the condo like it was the end times and that is exactly what it felt like. This is the way the world ends, one excruciating, sleepless day at a time. But I’m not giving up. Hence the Googling.

The key to traveling with kids with special needs, with all kids really, is to note the changes from year to year.

I am mentally graphing the difference two years makes. Naps aren’t necessary. He’s an old pro at the wheelchair. The backpack will be TRIED AND TESTED before we arrive. The iPad will also be fully charged just in case. I will put myself on Claritin as a preventative measure. And more than that…I will take some risks. Fear held me back last time, which held him back, and I don’t want to be another limitation for him. So, we will try all the things I was too worried to try last time: the rafting, the skipped naps, the eating out, the later nights, the wheelchair ice-skating (yes, it’s a thing). I will be braver so he can be braver.

Our life is already one big adventure off the beaten path of normalcy, so I am approaching this vacation like a pro. So much good has already come from being different. I will remember that and let it lead me farther down this road.


special needs parents

Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom, author and blogger.

Discover her new book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood.

Read her blog, The Mom Gene.

Follow her on Facebook.


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  1. What is the backpack shown in the picture with your son?? We are in the same boat and looking for one that will work!

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