By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 49
Taking a vacation with a neurodivergent child sometime in the near future? Keep reading to learn 6 steps you can take to help make it more enjoyable for everyone.

So you’re going on vacation. 

Well, “vacation” as a parent is not really an actual vacation, now is it? 

When you go on vacation with your kids, it’s not really a vacation. It’s more like…. Parenting in a different zip-code, spending more money, with less sleep and you take pictures along the way to remind future you that “it was all worth it” to convince yourself to do this again next year.

Our obligatory “it was all worth it” photo 

Sound about right?

If you’re traveling with your neurodivergent child on “vacation” (wink-wink), let me give you some tips to make it easier to take those “it was all worth it” photos. 

Be flexible with clothing/wardrobe expectations 

Bring comfortable, safe, familiar clothes for the trip. If you’re going somewhere with different weather and need to bring clothes they don’t typically wear, be sure to practice wearing it before you go. 

From Stressed to Dressed Guide

If you have a child who has sensitivities to the way that clothes fit, the way that fabrics feel to the point where they won’t wear certain clothes, this guidebook will provide a step-by-step program at home to help add variety to their closet and hopefully decrease your daily clothing battles.

Don’t stress about food

I can’t stress this enough, you can save the food exploring and food variety for when you get back from vacation. If you have a neurodivergent kid and a picky eater, find ways to bring as many favorite, predictable snacks and meals with you on the trip. If you’re flying somewhere, see if you can order an instacart or grocery delivery service in advance. If you’re road tripping, bring the air fryer, bring those dino-nuggets and the ketchup they love. You don’t want to risk that the restaurant chicken nuggets won’t taste the same as the frozen ones at home, and you don’t want a hangry kid on top of a dysregulated one. 

Manage YOUR expectations

I can’t tell you how many times I felt let down by my daughter’s lackluster reaction when she saw things that completely blew my mind as a kid. In fact, I constantly have to remind myself that I can’t surprise her with things. For example at Disneyland, rather than saving the ride as a surprise for her to see for the first time, I realized that showing her videos in advance is way better for everyone. Which brings me to my next point.

Show them pictures to prepare them ahead of time

Show them pictures of the hotel lobby, the room models, the Air BnB photos, and even the map of the hotel. Giving your kids the visuals of what to expect can add one extra layer of regulation protection. 

Bring familiar items that help with sleep

Again, if you’re flying… this is tricky. Whatever mode of transportation you’re taking, it can be helpful to bring some kinds of familiar items from your child’s room to help with providing a visual cue for sleep in the vacation spot. Even if it’s something as small as the pillow cases, an alarm clock or their favorite bedtime book, it can be helpful.

Take breaks! Don’t overdo it.

It can be so hard when we’re trying to jam 15 different points of interest into 3 days, especially with added layers like the time change and no reliable forms of transportation. The whole family will be in a better place to enjoy the vacation if you can actually schedule in some downtime. Whether that includes naps or just quieter, less stimulating events sprinkled out throughout the day, it’s necessary. 

Is this really necessary? 

As always, I want to beat you to the punch. I know some of you might be rolling your eyes or your partner may be listening alongside you saying “No way are we doing all that when we’re supposed to be on vacation.” 

I hear you. It sucks to have to spend so much effort accommodating your child’s needs, and it may not always be feasible or doable.

But here’s my response to that. 

If you don’t spend the effort setting these accommodations up for your child now, how much energy are you going to have to expend when they’re dysregulated on vacation and refusing to get dressed, eat the food or enjoy the luau?

If you or your partner don’t have the ability/energy/will to set up these accommodations, I get it, it’s not easy. If that’s the case, then be ready and willing to deal with a dysregulated child.

Sometimes that’s the mindset I need to get into myself.

 I’ll consider the effort it takes to set my daughter up for success before a vacation and consider canceling some outings on the vacation to avoid a potential meltdown. 

Sometimes I feel risky and go into it knowing full well that it could backfire on me. And you know what? Sometimes it does, but I feel better being “prepared” for it rather than wishing her to be this perfect angel the entire time. 

And sometimes, she completely surprises me, and we don’t even have to fake the “it was worth it” photos. 

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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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