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Special Needs Parent Resource

8 sanity-saving tips

Published: Thursday, 31 May 2012 18:33

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Families Living with Disabilities and Special Needs Can Have Accessible Summer Fun!

by Mâr Routson

Summer vacation. Do those two words fill you with delight or dread? Is it a time of relaxation and bonding, or is it a time of anxiety and distress? If you are well organized, plan ahead and remain very flexible (even when things go awry), you can have a wonderful, adventurous, memory-filled summer. Small budget or extravagant, one week or the entire summer, travel or stay-cation, this time should—and can—be enjoyed by everyone, especially including families living with special needs! Here are eight guidelines to ensure a sane summer of adventure and discovery:

Be Prepared

No matter what you do or where you go, start with a few essentials.

• Know CPR and basic first aid.

• Make a kit: your at-home and on-the-road tubs may include an Epi pen, tweezers, antibacterial wipes, sun screen, Band-Aids, blanket, anti-itch cream, and a CPR chart. Throw in some nuts, gluten-free crackers, water bottles and other easy-to-store snacks.

• Pack reusable utensils, cups, and bowls (check the camping supply section).

• Bring your own personal flotation device and an extra set of clothes.

Give Advance Notice and Ask Questions

Whether it's the bowling alley, park or a hotel, call well in advance—you'll never know unless you communicate with the ranger, manager or supervisor. You can't be private if you want what you need.

• Explain that you have a child with special needs. Be specific.

• Ask for room entry measurements, ramp availability, menu options or noise factors (Is the hotel near a fire station or freeway?). Accessibility is not one size fits all.

• Ask which days and times are the least crowded. Inquire about line jumping (but please, only if your child's special needs dictate it).

• Then, call within 24 hours of arrival. Remind them of requirements and adaptations previously discussed. This may mean: your specific room is still available; seating at the ball game is reserved; the bowling alley has bumpers up and ready.

Know Where You're Going

Research your destination. Something is bound to get lost or broken. It will be a much more pleasant trip if the items you need are handy.

• Request a pre-visit to locate accessibility, distraction factors, or food selections.

• If you're traveling out of town, locate the nearest Target, Costco or medical supply store.

• Did you know that there is a wheelchair designed for beach access? Many coastal communities rent these wheelchairs regularly—if you're lucky they'll deliver it to you too.

• Heading to the great outdoors? Apply for the National Parks Access Parks (persons with a permanent disability qualify; visit the USGS website for details). This free, lifetime pass provides free access to federal recreation sites that charge an entrance fee and grants discounted fees for activities like camping, swimming or boating.

Accept What You Can't Change

What do you do when plans go awry?

• You may find that the lovely person who misinformed you—kindly resist the urge to scold him. He probably didn't mean to. He may be limited by awareness.

• Don't get frustrated if the menu lacks gluten-free items or if the table is too low for your child's wheelchair. If the background music is too loud, ask if it can be lowered with a brief explanation. If it doesn't happen, leave without making a scene, and find another, more accommodating place.

• Remember, historic buildings do not have to comply with ADA regulations.


Make a commitment to unplug all electronic devices. Half a day, all day, every other day, save it for a rainy day, but do it.

• Swap electronic games for board games, a scavenger hunt, charades, or arts and crafts. Click here for Mar's tips on hosting a fun treasure hunt for any age or ability.

• Get cooking—there's a lot of math, science and reading involved: follow a recipe, measure, pour, mix, bake, cut into even pieces, and enjoy. Head to's Recipe section for lots of diet-friendly, kid-approved ideas.

• Use the kitchen for fun science experiments. Vinegar and baking soda volcano, anyone?

• Take a nature walk or explore the five senses at home.

• Make and eat your own fun dough. Click here for Mar's favorite homemade playdough recipe!

Don't Get in Over Your Head

Know your limits. Vacation shouldn't be so much work that you resent the effort.

• Make sure there are enough able bodies to share the care. If finances permit, hire an aide. Perhaps your child's classroom aide would appreciate that extra paycheck.

• Prioritize your adventure list. Make sure there's plenty of down time, and don't try to fit everything in just for the sake of seeing it all. Spread out your day trips.

• Be ready to abort mission in an instant.

• And, don't think it wrong if you and your husband decide to take your own vacation and you send your child off to camp. That might be just the perfect arrangement.

Use Your Resources

The people around you may be the best source for tips on where to go, what to do, and how to do it.

• Talk with the school counselors and teachers; chat with parents at your child's school. Browse the resources on Join a support group (, and your local regional center are a great place to being your search).

• Find an adventure that fits: fishing, beaches, camping, museums, fairs, city tours, the list goes on!

• Ask your child's teacher for practice assignments so skills don't regress. Make sure it is linked to fun, it is after all, vacation.

Whether you stay at home, take day trips, or go for a week long adventure, plan, organize, and prepare well in advance. Don't hold back due to limitations and constrictions. There is an ideal vacation awaiting everyone, go on out and find yours!

Mar Routson holds a master's degree in special education. She has taught kids, teens and adults in recreational, residential and clasroom settings, and now enjoys volunteering and writing full-time. She was recently received the Jean MacArthur Volunteer of the Year Award.

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Dandelion is a free quarterly magazine that serves as a resource for Bay Area and Sacramento families of children with special needs: autism and Asperger’s, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, those who are blind, deaf, in wheelchairs, learning disorders, sensory issues and every special need in between. Dandelion’s mission is to create and empower a community of local families through a variety of media by providing a database of resources, trusted and thought-provoking editorial content, an up-to-date calendar of special needs-specific events, noteworthy news, as well as contributions to the community.