Traveling is the Best Therapy~Traveling with a Special Needs Child

by Jessica on January 13, 2012


My kid has the best parents in the world.  Yep, just one of our brood of four hit the parental jackpot.

The other three fourths of our offspring are saddled with parents who could be described as typically decent, with just about an equal number of parenting hits and misses to average things out.

These three kids are, in politically correct terms, “typically developing” or “neurotypical.”  In layman’s terms, they are just normal kids.

The kid with the totally awesome parents is a kid with special needs.  His specialness even has a label to go along with it.  In fact, he is so special; he has a whole alphabet soup of labels to go through life with. 

We’re not a big fans of dwelling on the labels, though.  To us, those labels start to become a long list of characteristics that read like excuses to not help your kid reach his highest potential.  Instead, we like to look at the current challenges and do our best to help him to achieve his best. 

Let me tell you, some of those challenges have been real humdingers.   Part of this child’s specialness made him extremely agoraphobic and highly sensitive to noise, so much so that going to a simple restaurant or grocery store was enough torture to cause him to curl into a fetal position or hide in the dark to recover.   A typical child’s birthday party?  Not happening.   An unequaled rigidity in schedule, food, clothing, and just about every aspect of life was also a part of the package.  Everything needed to be anticipated.  Nothing could be a surprise and nothing could change unexpectedly.  Any tiny change would erupt a cascade of unending emotional turmoil.

Luckily for us, all of these “challenges” weren’t dropped in our lap all at once when this child joined our family.   In fact, he was a fairly easy baby, what with his dogged desire for schedule, and all.  As traveling had always been a part of our family, we continued to travel with no major issues, at first.  Our resolve to pursue a family vision of travel was severely tested though when all of these challenges came kicking and screaming to the forefront.

After all, if we couldn’t even successfully navigate the grocery store, could we even consider navigating a crowded airport, getting on a plane, staying in an unfamiliar hotel?  That would certainly be impossible.    This is when being young and stupid idealistic actually paid off.  We just weren’t willing to accept limitations and we kept traveling.

Traveling took on a whole new dimension for us, though.   Any airplane ride meant that one parent would have to sit with this child and calmly whisper reassuring words in his ear for every minute of the flight.   A three hour plane ride meant three hours of verbally talking him down from the ledge of anxiety and meltdown.  Whether or not his ears would pop on decent was the least of our worries.   I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that half the time I felt like it just wasn’t worth it and half the time I was kicking myself for being so selfish.   After all, I was the one who wanted to travel and it was stretching my son to his limits. Often, I felt sorry for this poor boy and wondered why he hadn’t been fortunate enough to have parents that were content just to stay put.  Not looking like parents of the year right now, are we?

Now that we are on the other side of that storm, I can say with confidence that stretching my son to his limits was exactly what he needed.  He didn’t need to be hidden away in the safety of his home, he needed an experience that would force him to face his fears and grow.   Traveling was the ticket to that opportunity.  I wish I could take credit for that, saying that I knew all along that we were doing the best thing for him and that we were pursuing it with intention.  But, I can’t.  We were then, like now, just taking one day at a time, hoping that we didn’t make too many mistakes. 

What will never be a mistake is that this child needed us and we needed him; we were the perfect parents for him.  This special child was divinely placed with two parents whose insatiable wanderlust would keep him constantly trying new things, encountering new experiences, and staring down fears.  Traveling stretched him to his very limits and he busted through those limits and kept on going.  Traveling proved to be better than any therapy money could buy. 

Long ago we conquered the grocery store and the airport and the airplane ride and the foreign country.  Traveling and life in general, has far less turbulence these days. There is still some uncertainty for a couple of days when we reach a new place, and there is always the concern of finding familiar food, but that gives us something to keep working towards-one step at a time, one trip at a time, we will keep conquering fears and shattering limits.


Lifecruiser Travel January 14, 2012 at 7:31 am

I came here from the blog Beoynd My Front Door where you had comment in a post and I'm glad I did. I so loved this post of yours. So genuin and so refreshingly honest. I have experienced "challenging kids" nearby – my sisters, so I know a tiny bit of what you're talking about here and I'm sure happy that you continued with your traveling.
I so loved when I read: "he needed an experience that would force him to face his fears and grow." Maybe it's like that for many of those kids?
Happy travel :-)

Steve January 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I think you are mistaken. All four of your kids hit the parental jackpot.
Beautiful post.

Nicole at Arrows Sent Forth January 16, 2012 at 9:57 pm

My thoughts exactly! Beautiful post!

Val in Real Life January 15, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Great post! It's uncharted waters when you try to push your kids, especially the special needs ones. Between your own self-doubt and not knowing exactly how they'll respond, it's definitely easy to end up just staying at home. Wonderful that you're showing other SN parents they don't have to.

Kara Williams January 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Lovely, heartfelt post.
On another note, I think you have 4 of the most photogenic boys on the planet! :-)

Lainie Liberti January 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing your family. I am so honored to share this experience with you and your family!!
Thank you!

wandering educators January 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm

how powerful, inspiring, moving. and i agree with kara – your boys are amazingly photogenic! thank you for sharing this challenge – and happy that you've stuck with it, through it all. beautiful!

Sharlene January 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Travel has been the best therapy for my special needs son as well. The more we share our stories, the more likely other parents will feel confident enough to travel with their special needs children.

Amy January 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Good for you for sticking to your idealistic ways. I don't think traveling was selfish of you at all, it was the best gift you could have given all of your sons!

Traci January 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm

He IS a lucky kid! Keep on traveling and give him the world!

Lisa Wood January 16, 2012 at 10:03 pm

OH Wow your family are amazing to keep on travelling even when you have to guide your son. I like that you have a dream to travel, and you keep on going, knowing that your son is being stretched for him to be happy.
Such an amazing family.

Monica Vandeventer January 17, 2012 at 12:53 am

All I can say is that I feel like a wanker! Not again. You are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing and inspiring us. 

Colleen Lanin January 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Thank you for the insight on traveling with children with special needs!
I am so impressed with how you get ALL FOUR CHILDREN to happily pose for pictures. I think you need to write a post about that next!

Tracy January 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I'm with Steve – I think all four of your children are incrediably lucky to have you. I'm so glad that travel has been just what your son has needed to blossom, although I'm sure it's not just travel – it's also having parents that are responsive to the benefits and challenges that travel will bring for him. Thank you for sharing.

Nancy Sathre-Vogel January 18, 2012 at 1:19 am

AWESOME! You've combined my two passions – Special Ed and travel into one! As a long-time Special Ed teacher, I've always advocated for travel. I think kids learn more from travel than in any other environment – and  not just "school stuff" either. As you found out. Good for you for pushing on!

Jeremy Branham January 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Great read!  Makes you put traveling with kids in perspective!

Mary @ The World Is A Book January 20, 2012 at 1:53 am

What a great and inspiring post!  Your boys are adorable and I'm glad you get to share your love of travel with them.  I admire you for traveling with 4 kids, much more 4 boys.  Wow – that's a lot of patience =)

Amy January 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Great post!  Your kids are all lucky to have you!  It is so much more of a challenge to have "special needs" and it takes so much extra time and patience.  It can be very rewarding to see how well they do, and how much they can still achieve.

Mara January 23, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I love this post because I feel like you're getting at the heart of what all parents who want to travel should consider, which is that the radical act of leaving behind what is known and routine can help our children expand their boundaries – and teach us how to be better parents. And boy do I tip my hat to you. I can't imagine the patience and kindness you and your husband must have. All that boy energy! On an airplane!

Raymond @ Man On The Lam January 24, 2012 at 4:58 am

All four kids are lucky if you ask me, whether they realize it or not… :)
Great post!

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