Wednesday, 31 May 2017 15:06

Vacation Planning Services for Families with ASD and Other Special Needs

Do you get overwhelmed when choosing a vacation destination that is suitable for your special needs child and exciting for other family members?

You’ll be glad to know there are travel planning services and vacation destinations that are gaining  recognition for specialized services for families with special needs, including ASD and ADHD. For example, cruise lines, and destinations can acquire an Autism Certificate (e.g., Beaches resorts). Another option is for a service, destination or program to receive recognition or designation from one of the national organizations or research centers that specialize in ASD or other special needs, including:

  • SEED (Social Enrichment and Educational Development) Autism Center – for Beaches Resorts 
  • CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disabilities) – centers in different states, for resorts 
  • Autism on the Seas – for cruises
  • Local chapters of national “cause” organizations relevant to your family’s health

To receive the designation as Autism-friendly, the resort or service has to meet certain standards. This usually includes specialized training for employees who assist guests with travel before, during, and after their trip.

While there isn’t a travel industry certification specifically for agents, many who specialize in travel services for special needs do so because they have experience with a special needs child or adult in their family. Some agents may be eligible to acquire an Autism Certificate from a credentialing organization. Others have established a strong network with practitioners, national/regional/state organizations, and support groups.

Tips for Travel Resources and Planning for Special Needs Families

To help you sort through the choices and planning that goes into traveling with your special needs child and their siblings, we brought FAQs to travel specialist Jennifer Trinidad of Majestic Palms Travel, an agent of Modern Travel Professionals. Jennifer is the parent of a sensory hypersensitive child. She and her husband Christian specialize in travel services around the world for families who have children with a wide range of needs, from food allergies to developmental and sensory conditions. They have helped families navigate travel to Disney, Europe, the Far East, Canada, the Caribbean, Hawaii and mainland U.S., as well as cruises.

What are good questions to ask a potential travel agent, to help determine if the agent is a best fit for their family’s needs? 

Take the time to do an initial phone call with the agent(s).  Five basic questions to ask are:

  • How long have they been booking travel?
  • Do they have experience in working with families with differing health needs, as well as your specific concerns?
  • What are their specialty destinations?  
  • Can they provide relevant references?
  • Do they work alone, or are they part of a broader agency? An agent with a support and resource network is incredibly valuable to you as a client.

Keep in mind that the right travel planner for your family may or may not be in your back yard. Many travel planners will work with clients regardless of where they live.

When you speak to an agent, be honest and up front about your concerns, interests, and needs. If the thought of planning the trip, and the “list of all of the possible things that could go wrong” that your brain decides to play on loop makes you want to run for the hills and hide, say so. Every family comes from a different place, mindset and experience level. If your agent knows where you’re really coming from, they’ll be better able to help guide you through the quoting and booking process, and the planning process to follow.  

What types questions should travelers expect the travel planner to ask of them, to make sure they are going to receive the best possible service from that agent?

The goal of any questions an agent will ask should be to generate a conversation so that your needs and what is truly important to you and your family are brought to the surface during the initial quoting. A more directed initial quoting process benefits everyone. For us, we have a set of baseline questions for our clients during the initial conversations. These help us know where to dig further to make sure we look at the destinations that may best suit the family.  

Some of the questions we may ask:

  • What is most important to you and your family in this trip?
  • Are there any destinations or resorts that you definitely are not interested in?
  • Are there any dietary needs within your travel party?  
  • Are there special health needs or conditions within your travel party? (additional questions specific to health needs will follow)
  • What is your family’s activity level?  Do you like to be active and on the go the entire time?  Do you like to sit by the pool or beach all day?  A combination of both?

Which destinations are exceptional in the service and amenities they provide for special needs families?

Families traveling with special needs have a variety of options, and those options will depend on your specific situation, interests, and comfort level:  

For those looking for an all-inclusive option, our favorite for families with special needs of all types are the Beaches resorts in Turks & Caicos and Jamaica. Custom kids programming, experienced staff, a culinary concierge program to support dietary needs and an all-inclusive environment gives everyone a well-deserved break (that means you too, parents and caregivers). 

If you prefer to stay stateside, Tradewinds in St. Petersburg, FL has received an Autism Friendly Certification. Also consider:

  • Myrtle Beach, SC
  • Ocean City, MD
  • Galveston, TX
  • Hampton Beach, NH 
  • Maine coast (York to Bar Harbor, or Acadia National Park) 
  • Southern California area from Anaheim to San Diego.  

Rental homes are available throughout these areas, in addition to hotels.  In Southern California, of course, are the three resorts located on-site at Disneyland in Anaheim.

Of course, there is Walt Disney World in Orlando, which we absolutely love for the many ways the parks accommodate for special needs. We also like Universal Orlando Resort. Universal Orlando is consolidated in size compared to the Disney parks. You can take an accessible walkway from any of the five (soon to be six) resorts to the entrance of Universal CityWalk under 20 minutes. Depending on your on-property resort choice, you’ll also be able to take an accessible water taxi or bus. With advance notice, special dining considerations can be met at many of the full-service restaurants. Universal Orlando’s private and small-group tour guides provide a add-on VIP experiences that may provide the personalized attention some families require. Also, express passes help families avoid congested and long waiting lines. Many rides at Universal Orlando theme parks also have a Family Waiting Room, providing a safe and sheltered place for those not riding to await those that are.  

Many of the U.S. National Parks have accessible trails and activities, as do some states’ parks (check with your specific state).  Depending on your specific situation, there are also cabin rentals in many parks across the country, such as Allegheny State Park on the NY/PA border, as well as RV parking/camping areas. Amtrak vacations are also a nice way to enjoy both the journey and the destination.

For more adventurous or globetrotting families, we recommend Adventures by Disney tours.  With over 40 land and river cruise itineraries around the world (including the U.S and Canada), Adventures by Disney is different from other “group tour” companies.  Aside from many immersive and unique “backstage” experiences included in your package (such as private, after-hours access to the Sistine Chapel in Rome), each tour is led by two Adventure Guides who specialize in the locations and can work with their guests on activity levels and other needs.  While not every itinerary can be customized to every need, Adventures by Disney will have those discussions with travel agents and guests during both the booking process and planning process (so you don’t deposit a trip your family won’t be able to do).

Cruise lines have also take up the mantle of accessible accommodations.  Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line have been recognized for their support of children and adults with Autism and other disabilities; Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have received formal Autism Friendly Cruise Line certification. All can accommodate several dietary needs. If accessibility is needed, work with your travel agent to assist you with securing an accessible room and onboard accessibility devices from approved partner vendors. 

Final tips to help families make a choice for travel destination? 

Destination choices generally come down two core considerations: 

  • Your family’s specific situation. Beaches Resorts are phenomenal, but if a plane ride, sun, sand, and ocean are not an environment compatible with your family’s situation, don’t book it. It sounds like common sense, but there are families out there who have booked something not in line with their needs hoping it will all work out, only to find themselves very unhappy. Kids can surprise you and enjoy something you never imagined they would. Make trip planning a family affair—include everyone in the planning process before and after you select a travel planner.
  • Value. I say “value” rather than “budget,” because while there are sometimes amazing deals and discounts, “you get what you pay for” rings true more often than not in the travel industry. A good example of this could be your resort room category. If you need a room in a quieter area of a resort rather than in a more active location, it could be a more expensive room than you expected. It may or may not be worth the expense, but make sure to consider all aspects. 

Keep in mind that the right travel planner for your family may or may not be at the agency in your hometown or the one owned by your cousin Sally. Search online and research agents and their services as much as you can. Many travel planners will work with clients regardless of where they live. Finally, allow your travel planner to help you think through where it makes the most sense to allocate your hard-earned travel investment in alignment with your family’s needs. 

Resources

Special Needs Vacation Spots (list provided by TheVacationCritic.com)

Allergy-Friendly Travel Resources (provided by Majestic Palm Travel Agency)

Cruise Planners: Easy Access Travel; “Autism on the High Seas”

ASD Vacations and Special Needs Travel

World Travel Excursions – Agencies specializing in family and group travel around the globe; list provided by FriendshipCircle.org

CARD Center for Autism Disorders find locations and then visit the. If you don’t see resort/vacation designations for a state, call the center for assistance.

SEED (Social Enrichment and Educational Development) Autism Center 

Published in Helpful Tips
Tuesday, 04 April 2017 17:12

Summer Camp Planning Tips for Children with Special Needs

Choosing a summer camp for a child with autism or other special needs can quickly becoming overwhelming. Our summer camp planning tips will help you gather and organize information so you can make the best camp choice for your child. 

In any geographic area, but particularly in our corner of Southern New England, there are myriad traditional and specialty camps designed for every age and ability. Some camps will run the entire summer while others offer shorter sessions (1-2 weeks). Traditional camps may accommodate for certain special needs, and may be a suitable option. Or, you may prefer a camp that exclusively works with specific needs such as autism or learning disabilities. The best way to narrow down your options is to focus on the objectives you have for your child’s camp experience, the camp’s capabilities and operations, and your budget.

Set Objectives.

Think about the purpose behind sending your child to camp: 

  • Do you want them to enhance social skills, play sports, get more depth in academic subjects, or just have fun exploring new horizons? 
  • Would you like them to go to day camp or residential?
  • Would they do best in a boys/girls only or a co-ed camp?
  • Do they require a special needs only camp or an traditional mixed ability camp?
  • What about camp size… a sprawling woodlands campus, urban setting or something smaller and closer to home?
  • What activities interest your child? What new experiences could enhance her development? Many special needs camps include physical activities, such as climbing, swimming, or field sports. They often include arts activities such as music, drama, and fine arts. Outdoor activities are usually a staple of traditional and special needs camps; children learn to safely explore and learn about nature and work as part of a team. Academics can be another camp focus, including STEM programs, and diving deeper into literature, writing, communication skills, speech and language acquisition, and independent living skills.

Unless your child’s interests are highly specific or they have highly specific needs, the first time away at any camp, you may want to consider a camp that offers an array of experiences. You’ll want to balance that with your child's level of readiness to move outside their comfort zone, something that should be discussed with your child’s healthcare team.

How ready is your child for the camp experience? Once you’ve thought about objective for your child’s camp experience, consult with their healthcare team, teachers, and therapists. They can help you determine if your objectives are realistic. You should discuss your child’s level of readiness for a particular experience, if it is time to nudge them toward a new experience, and how to best prepare your child. As you continue with your research, you’ll likely revisit this conversation with your child’s team.

Do Your Camp Homework

If you can, tour any camp of interest the year before you send your child. This gives you a chance to see how the camp operates while in session with registered campers. Certainly plan to attend camp fairs where you can gather info on a variety of camps in your region. Most camps offer a preview day so you and your child can experience a day of camp life. There are many regional and state camp directories on line to facilitate your research. (See Resources at end of article).

Interview the camp director and head counselors by phone or in person. Key questions to ask:

Camp Operations Questions

  • How long has the camp been operating?
  • Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association?
  • What is the camper-to-counselor ratio? 
  • What’s the counselor-to-camper ratio and what’s the staff turnover rate? 
  • What  background checks are made? 
  • How many counselors per campers work at the camp?  
  • What type of specialized training do counselors complete, or do they have credentials and experience working with special needs children?
  • How is the staff selected? 
  • Will the camp provide references of other families who have attended the camp?
  • What percentage of campers return each year?
  • What are the special needs camp’s philosophy and goals? 
  • How does the camp communicate with families and how often?

Daily Camp Life

  • What are the health and safety policies, and is the camp equipped for emergency situations?
  • Who prepares the food, and does the camp take into account the food allergies or specifications of each child?
  • What medical care is available? Can they maintain your child’s therapeutic schedule and accommodate special diets?
  • For traditional camps, is there any therapeutic programming? 
  • How does the camp handle homesickness? 
  • How structured is the daily schedule? Can campers choose which activities to participate in?
  • Is it possible to arrange for a one-to-one buddy? For residential camps, what’s the level of overnight supervision?
  • How are large groups of children managed? What are the small group activities?
  • How accessible are buildings, trails, pools and waterfront, transportation?

Costs

  • Are there additional costs for certain activities? What is the total cost of the special needs / traditional camp? Is there a refund policy in case the individual must leave early or cancel before attending camp?
  • Do they work with insurance reimbursement? Scholarships or financial aid?

Be honest with the camp about your child. You not only want to interview the camp, you want the camp to show a vested interest in learning about your child. What questions do they ask about your child? What paperwork do they keep on file? Do they communicate with your healthcare team on an as needed basis (with your consent)?

Be honest about your child’s needs, strengths and areas for development. Be forthcoming about their limitations socially, emotionally, and physically. For example, if your child needs assistance to get the day started but by afternoon is more independent and energetic, let the counselors know this so your child’s daily schedule can be adjusted accordingly. If your child has behavior issues, let the camp know.

Prepare your child for camp

If this will be your child’s first time at any camp, plan extended period of time that they are apart from you. Arrange long day trips with friends or family so your child gets use to being apart from you for the day. Especially for residential camp prep, arrange a sleepover with a so they can get used to being away from home. Begin with one night and progress to three nights for a more immersive test experience. 

When the time for camp arrives, pack a photo album or other reminders of the family in their bag. If they use digital devices at camp, record messages from family and store photos and favorite songs on it. It may also help to alert counselors to comforting routines for meals or bedtime. You and your care team also should talk with your child about homesickness. You can share your personal experiences and let them know it is just temporary to feel homesick.

You’ll make a great camp choice if you do your homework, consult with the child’s care team, and focus on where your child will thrive in the camp experience, and be able to partake in activities that interest her/him while addressing their special needs.

To get started exploring your options, learn more about Talcott’s Summer Camp Programs…so many adventures await for your child!

Resources

Disability info Camp Directories: An index of special needs camps searchable by state.

Summer Fun Camp Guide, Federation for Children with Special Needs

Online and downloadable guide that organizes camps by category (e.g., autism, learning disability, metabolic condition, physical condition, etc)

The Camp Page

Connecticut Special Needs Camp Directory 2017

Asperger/Autism Network:  Choosing a Summer Camp

Autism Consortium:  Time for Summer Planning

Special Needs Alliance: Choosing a Summer Camp for Kids with Special Needs 

Special Needs.com:  “How to Choose a Summer Camp”

Published in Helpful Tips

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