Tips on coping with flights and getting advice on destinations.
Trekking into the great unknown is exhilarating for most, but if you are the parent of a child with special needs, the unknown is your biggest obstacle, said Meghann Harris, 47, the senior founder of SpecialGlobe.com, a new travel website for families of children with physical and cognitive challenges.
Harris’ daughter, Eliza, 8, has atypical Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder.
Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Harris.
Q: What’s the first step to prepare for a trip with a special-needs child?
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A: Planning. That means locating the closest hospitals, pharmacies, equipment rental companies, service organizations that can provide one-to-one assistance, if necessary. Really plan your time well. Be realistic in your goals. Parents want to jam everything they can into one trip, but you have to allow your kids downtime. If a parent is charging around, kids will feel that stress.
Q: What do you hear parents say is their biggest practical challenge?
A: Air travel is a huge barrier. Space is tight, bathrooms are ridiculous and layovers are either too short or too long. I have to assist Eliza in the bathroom, and to get both of us in there I sometimes have to leave the door open. Inevitably she starts pushing buttons, so a flight attendant shows up. The sense of privacy and respect is gone.
Q: How can families ease the process of flying for their children?
A: I advocate for early boarding. It gives you time to settle your child and get in a calmer place before everyone starts clambering on. And the attendants have time to see Eliza, get to know her a little.
We have spent a lot of time sitting at the edge of a runway watching the planes take off and land. JetBlue has a great program called Wings for Autism, in which families can come experience the security screening, then board the plane and taxi the runway. (Get Wings for Autism info at thearc.org/wingsforautism.)
Q: Have you found any city to be particularly good at welcoming families with special needs?
A: San Diego does a really good job. They are very aware and welcoming in general.
Q: Where can families find assistance with booking trips?
A: SpecialGlobe offers access to certified special-needs travel agents, and we have partnerships with booking sites like HomeAway.com, which is figuring out how to filter out properties with safety features that appeal to special-needs families. And the National Ability Center is another cool organization that offers travel programs.
Q: Why is it vital to you that Eliza be able to travel?
A: She comes back from every trip a step ahead. Her issues involve how her neural pathways connect, and I think that with every new place we visit, it’s creating more pathways. It’s assisting her speech. She always comes back with a bigger vocabulary, and this is a kid who was never supposed to be able to speak.