Traveling With a Neurodivergent Child: Ways to Plan Ahead

DISCLAIMER: My family prefers to use both neurodivergent and disabilities as part of our identities. Some families with ADHD and other identities use other language. If you are not sure what someone prefers, I suggest asking! 

If you have a neurodivergent child, traveling can include extra challenges. On the flip side, many children with ADHD and Autism (just two examples of awesome neurodivergent brains) can also be artistic, and creative, and have intense special interests which could include a passion for travel. Having a child (or two) with disabilities doesn’t have to get in the way of a great family trip. 

Traveling with all children can be . . . well, I always think of it more as a “business trip” than a vacation. After all, it can be a lot of work! We are a family of five, with kids ranging in age from 11 to 16, with various needs. We love to travel and we enjoy it the most when we have planned ahead to assure that everyone’s needs are met. 

Family of 4 sitting on a bench enjoying each other. One of the teens is wearing noise cancelling headphones, which help with some neurodivergent sensitivities.
My family enjoying Germantown in Milwaukee. Loud restaurants can be challenging–noise-cancelling headphones for the win!

When planning a family trip, I like to ask myself about the specific needs and accommodations each of my children need on a daily basis as I prepare. This helps me think about sensory sensitivities, where each of my children is in terms of independent and self-care skills, and challenges they may have with unpredictability or new experiences.

By thinking through what may go wrong, it helps me assure that things go right! Our packing lists include the regular necessities AND tangible tools to support our kids. We also include a metaphorical toolbox of strategies for the inevitable unpredictability of travel. 

Neurodivergent-Friendly Packing

Some of our “go-to” tools are noise-cancelling headphones, many pairs of ear buds (they tend to “disappear”), Aaron’s thinking putty, multiple sketch books from dollar tree, and a few flair pens. 

Noise-cancelling headphones are helpful in large crowds to drown out the noise. Ear buds are essential for my child who finds listening to their own music an instant calming tool.  Aaron’s thinking putty is such a stress reliever for all of us! It’s also a great fidget for times when sitting still is tough. Sketch books and pens not only help to pass the time when waiting is needed, but they can also be a great anxiety reliever when the day feels overwhelming.

I have these items in the car and in my purse. Sometimes as my kids get older, they will carry their own items in a small backpack or fanny pack. 

Setting Expectations + Anticipating Challenges

In addition to packing our bags, I take care to prep each kid individually in the way they need. For example, my youngest does best if we talk, and talk, and talk some more about each thing we’ve planned, including sharing pictures of all of the sites.

One of my older children finds constant vacation talk overwhelming, and would rather not hear the agenda until the morning of each day or the night before. So, I do my best (never striving for perfection, yet happy being “the world’s okayest Mom”) to talk to them separately. This becomes a perfect bedtime activity for my youngest child, and therefore, spares the older sibling from having to be included.

Isn’t This Time Consuming?

Yes, this method takes a bit more time and thought before the trip. However, the payoff is huge when the trip is a success!

I actually find that we save time by preparing the kids ahead of time with what to expect. This avoids some (but not all) meltdown moments on the trip! And yes, packing those extra sensory and calming items makes for a longer to-do list for me. However, it’s way better than trying to find these obscure tools on the road.

Sometimes I do find myself stressed with all the thought and care it takes into planning a trip for my family and accommodating everyone’s needs. If you have a neurodivergent child, traveling can include extra challenges. However, every single time we go on a vacation and we find ourselves all in a fit of giggles around a campfire, waiting for dinner, or even in the car, I know that the time is a worthy investment.

Neurodiversity can include so many things. Amanda shares important things to know and consider when it comes to talking about neurodiversity.


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