My husband banned travel with the children when our younger son was six months old and his big brother was two. We had driven eight hours from a neighboring state to spend Thanksgiving weekend at my in-laws’ lake house in rural Arkansas. The kids did fine. My husband and I, not so well. Upon returning home, he declared we would not be doing that again. The boys are now five and four, and we have not attended any family holidays requiring travel (which is all of them) since.
Until this past summer, that is, when I decided my in-laws had suffered enough. It was time for a road trip to the lake. In many ways, travel now would be easier than when the boys were babies: no breastfeeding, no explosive diapers, and no naps to work around. However, in the time since we had last traveled, my younger son was diagnosed with SPD and multiple food allergies, so the chore of planning and packing was, alas, no lighter than when they were infants. It was just different.
I was nervous to hit the road, not knowing how the children would cope with the long drive and four days away from life as usual. Since my husband couldn’t join us, I took my own mother along for moral support and an extra set of hands. Yes, I took my mother to my in-laws’. I know, I know.
To my surprise, our trip to the lake was perfect. Our drive was uneventful. I swam and played in the lake with my boys and watched them dig in the garden, ride on the tractor and steer the boat. I watched them delight their grandparents and revel in the special attention they received. I saw my son with SPD not miss a beat and enjoy our trip without a single meltdown.
So magnificently successful was our adventure that, once home, I reflected long and hard on exactly what we did that worked so well. After jotting down various aspects of our trip, I found they gradually coalesced into three simple strategies that I now employ whenever we travel with the kids and that anyone can use to travel successfully, SPD-style.
Strategy one: Anticipate sensory needs and plan accordingly
We’ve all met irritating people who swear they “just throw the kids in the car and go”, but for parents of kids with SPD, that is a pipe dream. Even my Type A sister, who has lists of her lists when she travels, has more freedom in her travel choices than I do. For example, she often starts a road trip after dinner so that her kids sleep in the car and she doesn’t have to stop as often. Great idea, just not for my child.
Like most kids with SPD, my son thrives on routine, and arguably the most important routine of the day is bedtime. It was easy to anticipate a meltdown of massive proportions if we arrived in the middle of the night, whisked him into a dark house and plopped him in a strange room to sleep till morning. I needed to make a plan that would prevent that kind of stress and meet his sensory needs.
In our case, it works better to leave after breakfast, take a break for lunch, and finish our trip right about dinner time. Then the kids can eat and run around acclimating until time to start the usual bedtime routine at close to the usual hour.
Another way I plan according to my son’s sensory needs is in how we eat on the road. Since restaurants are not only overstimulating, but also a potential health risk from food allergens, I avoid them on a road trip. Instead, I pack our lunches and look for a good place to eat along our route. Weather and paranoia permitting, I may stop at a roadside picnic area or a local park. At other times, an out-of-the-way corner in a mall or a hotel works well for us. Anticipate your child’s sensory needs and plan to do what works for you.
Strategy two: Prioritize your tools
Even though the legs of our mini-trampoline do screw off, I still cannot fit every sensory tool in our arsenal into the trunk of my Taurus. A little ruthless prioritizing is a must. Before packing, consider your child, your destination and your itinerary, then hone in on the five things that will be most useful and appropriate for your trip. My list?
- A large exercise ball: This is my go-to piece of equipment. It’s an integral part of my son’s sensory diet, especially at bedtime, so I keep one in a small box (with a foot pump) to pack and inflate once we arrive. Even if I were flying, I would find a way to pack this.
- My son’s weighted blanket: I would never go overnight without it, and it has multiple uses in his sensory diet, particularly when we’re not at home.
- A portable DVD player: A no-brainer. Of course we use it in the car, but I find it’s also useful to help transition my kids from frenetic activity into some much-needed down time (snacks are also good for this), and it’s nice to be able to place it anywhere.
- A pack’n’play: Yes, I still bring one for my younger son, since he is small enough to fit in it and needs the security of that enclosed space to sleep well away from home. If your child creates some kind of comfort zone in her bed at home, bring what she needs to recreate it on the road. Whatever it is, it probably won’t take up as much trunk space as a pack’n’play.
- A blender: I almost didn’t include this one, but I feel it could be symbolic for everyone who can relate to my trickiest travel dilemma: If my kid is going to eat while traveling, I am going to have to bring the food. Between extreme oral hypersensitivity and a stringent special diet, few of my son’s food choices are in any typical person’s pantry, nor can I count on finding them in just any grocery store. I pack a batch of allergen-free waffles, containers of pureed veggies and safe snacks—and yes, if necessary, my blender, to make three smoothies a day for as long as we’re away. Whatever is on your child’s Will-Actually-Eat list, it pays to make sure you can get it where you’re going and if not, bring it (and any equipment you need to make it) with you. For my child, familiar food on the road is just as much a sensory tool as his big ball.
Strategy three: Maintain structure to support spontaneity
Think about your child’s daily schedule: wake/sleep times, mealtimes, play time, and down time. Then think about the specific routines that give structure to those daily activities. What is your routine first thing in the morning? At dinner, at bedtime? Now, decide which of those routines are feasible to keep doing while traveling and do them. I found that if we follow my son’s usual bedtime routine, serve him his usual food, and carry out the crucial parts of his sensory diet as usual, he stays relaxed and well-regulated enough to handle each day’s onslaught of unusual experiences away from home. By maintaining these key bits of normal structure at the lake house, I gave my son the support he needed to enjoy the spontaneity and sensory input of a swim in the lake, a ride on a fast boat and a turn on a noisy tractor all in one day.
Maintaining structure was fairly easy at the lake, since there was nowhere to go and no pressure to pack as much as possible into every moment. At my brother’s wedding later in the fall, it was a bit harder to carve out time and space to keep my son regulated and secure. Even on vacation, even with close family, you may find you must advocate for your child and ratchet down your pace a bit to meet her needs.
You know your child’s limits better than anyone. Sometimes you will have to stretch those limits to participate in important events or to make the most of your vacation, but as much as possible, provide your child with support for those occasions by keeping intact key routines in her schedule. Successful, sensational travel is possible for you and your child with SPD.
We can’t wait to head back to the lake this summer and stay even longer this time. My mom and my mother-in-law are already putting their heads together. We may even invite my husband along.