Helpful Tips for Special Needs Parents Traveling This Summer

More than two years ago, I founded a consulting company called Scratch Made that helped special needs moms incorporate self-care practices in their daily lives. If you’re new here, I was a special needs therapist turned behavior analyst working with special needs children that is very familiar with the challenges that families face.

Forming such a tight-knit community of moms led me to meet Dina Farmer, a mom of a special needs child who is also in the business of helping other special needs families like herself find ease with planning and executing a vacation getaway with their special needs family members.

If you happen to be a parent with a special needs child, who is looking for tips on how to make flying with your special needs family member simpler or looking for resources on travel tips for families of special needs, you’re in good company because Dina knows all about this!


flying with special needs


Photo Source: Istock

struggles of being a special needs parent


Dina Farmer is a mother of two amazing little boys one of which is on the autism spectrum. Dina is a Travel Advisor, founder of Lily and Magnolia Travel, an IBCCES Certified Autism Travel Professional, and an Accessible Travel Advocate. She enjoys spending time traveling with her boys and her profession is to help special needs families navigate the challenges of travel so they can get out there to explore the world and reconnect.

In what ways working with a Certified Autism Travel Agent is helpful?

A Certified Autism Travel Professional has the skills and knowledge to provide support and travel-related services to people with autism. Some of the things I have learned through my certification include

  • How to ship food in your suitcase that you know your child will eat

  • The importance of security

  • The importance of alarms for water safety

  • How to better support self-advocacy and how traveling can help with that

  • How to find inclusive accommodations and what is acceptance vs. awareness at a hotel

  • How to find the staff that will go above and beyond for all my clients

However, these same professionals also offer support to the other families dealing with autism but also desiring to travel. Certified autism travel professionals take the whole family into account when planning a vacation that everyone will love.


child with special needs


Photo Source: Istock

What tips would you offer families two weeks before their flight or road trip?

Make sure to model and prep for travel.  If your child has never flown before and is actively working with therapists, it’s important that they rehearse what it is like on an airplane. 

If this is the first time staying at a hotel, model that new routine.  Discuss as much as possible during these two weeks to prep for travel. Coordinate with support services like TSA Cares (which is a TSA for special needs) to get support at the airport.

If a family is flying, who should they talk to about flight accommodations?

It is always best to talk to the airline.  This way you can make the airline aware of any additional help you might need. This is also the time to make requests that can be reasonably accommodated.  If there is someone at the desk, always make the gate agent aware before boarding the plane.

Also, make it a point to talk to the head flight attendant. Thankfully, you are able to pre-board with a person with a disability so this is an easy quick chat after we’ve gotten settled. 

My advice, call them right away to speak with them and discuss anything that might happen and what I might need from them.


special needs travel program


Photo Source: Istock

What advice can you give to families when they are waiting to board a plane? Should they advocate for seating in a particular area?

Unfortunately, unless you are flying on an airline that has open seating you will need to book your seat well in advance.  I highly recommend this as you know your child best and if you want to sit somewhere you need to pay for your seats as soon as you book. 

This is the best way to guarantee that you will sit in a particular seat.  I find that the middle of the plane while not the best to get to the bathrooms is the quietest.  Fewer folks are congregating around the restroom and it makes space for you to walk to the restroom. 

If nothing else then I highly recommend that you get seats in the front of the plane this way you can get off the plane ASAP if you need to once you land. I do, however, encourage you to remember that you can pre-board with a child with a disability, don’t feel shame-board right away.  Of course, you know your child best so do what feels right for you.

What extra items do you recommend families pack for their trip/vacation?

Tons of snacks, a weighted lap blanket, electronics, and don’t forget those earphones, window stickers, coloring books, and a box of crayons.  Bring items that can be lost but won’t be missed. 


parents with special needs child


Photo Source: ColorJoy Stock

Figuring out the mode of transportation can be difficult, how do you help families make the best decision?

This is really a discussion of needs.  When I’m working with a client, I like to know how comfortable they are with the different modes of transportation. I make recommendations based on the time they have and the distance they are comfortable traveling. 

So far all of my clients who have chosen to fly, we work out the coordination of support via TSA Cares and working with the airline to ensure they get the supports they need. 

If a family member has opted for flying, is there a disability assistance number to call for questions?

I think it’s best to reach out to the airline if you have questions in regards to flying.  This way they can best support you with any questions you might have about the flight etc. 

I always also recommend checking YouTube if you are interested in what a plane looks like. There are tons of reviews of airlines with full cabin reviews.


struggles of being a special needs parents


Photo Source: Istock

What are the best hotels to stay in for special needs families?

Any hotel is the best hotel to stay at for families.  However, there are some hotels that are doing great things like Nickelodeon, Beaches, and cruise ships like Royal Caribbean. Their services are almost exclusive to the outside of the rooms. 

There are some hotels that offer safety features inside the rooms for complimentary use for a small fee but in general, most of the support is outside.  Such as trained staff members at the kid’s clubs, dining options for selective palettes and so much more.  The biggest thing is many of these locations also have quiet areas, key entry pools, and lifeguards on duty. 

You offer consultation services for parents, helping them coordinate travel with their child with special needs, what does this entail exactly?

I work with them to learn what their needs are and coordinate with the supplier on the ground to get accommodations in place.  I also present things to families to ease anxiety such as examples of what rooms or staterooms look like, POVs of rides if they are going to a theme park, coordinating meals if there is an allergy, and taking care of the entire planning process before handing them an itinerary.

I even coordinate care with a traveling respite provider if families find they need some extra hands-on vacation. I remove the stress that comes with planning the trip so all they have to do is pack up their bags and go!


mom of special needs child


Photo Source: ColorJoy Stock


Are there any special needs travel programs?

Yes, there are some amazing programs out there such as Special Needs at Sea, Adaptive Ski Programs, TSA Cares, and Wings for Autism (which is flight prep). The list keeps growing but there and more coming out there to help families get out in the world. 


Struggles of Being A Special Needs Parent

While reading this interview, I hope you as a special needs mother or father felt some relief with the fact that you are not alone when it comes to feeling anxious and stressed about traveling with your special family.

Flying with a child with autism or neurodivergence can be a challenge, but Dina offers some sage advice. With very few resources like special needs parenting books covering the topic of travel, Dina and her consulting company, Lily and Magnolia Travel are here to help to ensure your child’s needs are addressed from start to finish.

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