Travel Tips for Parents of Children with Sensory Integration Issues
By: Cynthia Falardeau | 2009-11-05


My husband, Jim, and I are veterans.  You see, we have served in a different kind of battle.  We have survived traveling with a child who has special needs.  I guess you could call it “combat training.” 

The past several years have been a “boot camp” experience towards enjoying a simple family vacation.

We are just parents.   We only have six years of “field training.”  But, we feel like we have a lot to share with other parents.   We want to encourage other families to do like the Royal Caribbean advertisements taunt and “Get Out There!” 

We have flown on airplanes, sailed on cruise ships, traveled on trains, rode on buses, and enjoyed a few sailboat rides along the way.  Each initial experience began with meltdowns, tantrums, and other behavioral issues.  We have had our share of being criticized by on lookers.  We have been asked to leave places and have been confronted by airport security.  You could say, we have “been there and done it all!”

We have worked to overcome many issues.  The most challenging for our son, in relation to travel, has been Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID).   It is not just another “diagnosis of the day”, but a road block for many children in the spectrum of autism and related disabilities.  It also can be a challenge for many typically developing children, too.

People with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) have great difficulty figuring out what is going on inside and outside of their bodies.  There's no guarantee that the sensory information they're working with is accurate. In response, a child may avoid confusing or distressing sensations.  

Given this information, the idea of planning a family vacation can be a challenge.  What may be a simple experience for others can become sensory overload for a child with special needs and result in the day being ruined by something as simple as a fire drill.  The reality is that you cannot control every situation like a fire drill.  However, here are a few tips from our battles to help our son thrive:

1.    Phone First:

In this world of Internet information there is still no replacement for talking to a human being.  Call the travel provider and find out how they can accommodate your child’s special needs.  Most airlines, cruise ships, and theme parks have programs to accommodate children with special needs.   Find out what they have to offer and how they can make your family’s vacation relaxed and memorable.

2.    Squirrel Away Snacks - Find Out What You Can Take With You:

Children often have a hard time waiting or do not like the food options that are available.  We have avoided many melt downs by having food with us.  A simple peanut butter “Jiff on the Go” has saved us from behavior nightmares.  Find out ahead of time what you can take with you on the plane or on board a ship. 

Our son relied heavily on a nutritional supplement called, “Pediasure.”  Back to point one: we found out that we needed a doctor’s note to bring it on board a cruise ship.  If I had not called ahead, I would have never known, and our vacation would have been ruined.

3.    Study the Route:

This is critical, if you are traveling alone.  Study the route and plan your stops to meet your child’s needs, as well as, your own.  Many children with SID challenges cannot sit for long periods of time and need a break.  Plan these into your travel route.

When our son was a baby, he required oxygen and a monitor.  I will never forget the first time I stopped at a fast food restaurant to use the bathroom. I could not roll the stroller into the stall.  I will spare you the details of how I overcame this, but I will tell you that I now know every clean family bathroom from Vero Beach to Nemours Clinic in Orlando. 

4.    Make Plans for Obtaining a Passport:

If a passport is needed, you will need to plan ahead.  Just getting the passport photo can be an obstacle.  I recommend calling ahead to determine the best time to have the photo taken.  You will minimize waiting.   We also learned that t-shirts with writing cannot be worn in passport photos.  It was complete mutiny when we had to reverse Wyatt’s shirt for the photo.

Calling ahead also applies for turning in your application.  I called the local passport office at the Clerk of Courts to explain my son’s challenges and asked when was the best time for my husband and I to stop by with our son to submit the application.  The staff was incredibly kind and accommodating.   They recommended a time that was their least busy time of day.

 Last, but not least, be sure to allow time for the passport to be processed before your scheduled trip.  To learn more about applying for a pass port visit:

5.    Anticipate Road Blocks :

Many children with SID challenges have issues with loud noises.  Try ear phones or an iPod.  They can provide calming music or familiar noises to distract your child.  We carried around a large head phone set for several years.  They helped our son overcome his fear of going into the school cafeteria.  Work these strategies into points six and seven.

6.    Create a Visual Map  Schedule or Story Board for Your Child:

We have done this with index cards, calendars and by creating a visual schedule with pictures.  It is an invaluable tool to setting expectations, managing behaviors, and talking your child through meltdowns.  Involve your child in the production of the format you choose. 

7.    Utilize Pretend Play to Prepare your Child:

Role playing is a great way to review the visual schedule you have created.  We were stressed about an upcoming flight.  Wyatt was too old to sit on our laps.  We were very worried he would not sit in his seat on the plane.  We decided that we should use his car seat, since it would be a familiar restraint.  We practiced by playing “airplane.”  Mommy was the stewardess, Daddy was the pilot, and Wyatt was our passenger.  We thought our plan was pure genius until we got ready to board, and were asked if our seat was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.  Please note that the FAA does not require all children to use a child restraint system (CRS).  Visit the FAA website for additional information:

8.    Be Super Mom – Bring Along a Change of Clothing:

Our son had a lot of oral sensory issues in the past.  Sometimes it is referred to as being “oral defensive.”  Although we have finally put much of this behind us, I must say I wear a badge of honor.  I think I have been puked on in every travel situation.  Try to find the humor in the situation.  It will calm you and your child.  Once, I pulled off my t-shirt in a parking lot, out of frustration.  To my astonishment, an old man was watching my quick change.  I just have two things to say.  My bra gave me complete coverage, and I would like to think I made that old man’s day!

9.    Get Ready to “Roll with it”:

You have to be ready to expect that something will not go as planned.  It’s a given!  When we went to board the plane, as mentioned above in point five, I was asked by the stewardess if the seat was approved by the FAA?  I had to think fast because I didn’t know.  I smiled, confidently and proclaimed, “Yes, of course!”, and added, “look, it says so right here!” The stewardess, who must have been as farsighted as I am said, “She’s right!”  We later turned the car seat over; it was NOT approved by the FAA!  I am not suggesting lying.  I am only saying that you have the power to redirect people as needed for the sake of your child.

10. Know Your Rights:

Be careful if you buy tickets to see “Dora Live” or some other event that may push your child into sensory overload.  Find out if you can get a refund or what special accommodations they are willing to make for you.  The same is true of travel or theme park providers.  Most of them will make special accommodations.  Visit:  for more resources and links.

11. Most People are Incredibly Kind (overlook the 10%ers!)

I think it is human nature for us to focus on the one person who made a rude comment or offered unsolicited parenting advice.  I call these folks “ten per centers.”  We have been amazed at how helpful complete strangers have been in helping to calm or to entertain our child.

12. Don’t Get Discouraged (even if you lose money!)

It’s very upsetting when you have purchased tickets to a live production and you can’t even get your child into the theater or because you can’t get them to wear a life jacket for a boat ride.  Accept it as an investment in working towards overcoming their sensory issues.  Sometimes you can ride it out until your child decides it’s not that bad.  But sometimes, you just have to realize you have work to do and will try again another day.

13. Celebrate your Success and Encourage Others!

Relish those milestones when you finally can enter a movie theater or when you can survive a boat drill on a cruise without a meltdown.  Most of all, reflect on what tips you can share to encourage others.  Passing it on to help others is the greatest gift you can give.  We end with our 13th point because only you have the power to turn any situation into a blessing filled with good luck!


For more information about Sensory Integration Dysfunction visit the following website: Come Unity:





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