Travel with kids is a challenge, but travelling with special needs children can take things to a whole other level. Amelia Sewell finds out what travel companies are doing to help parents with differently-abled families.
Holidaying with kids can be a challenge.
When my eldest son was just over a year old, we began to feel that we were no longer total novices at this parenting lark. We had more or less got home life down to a relatively predictable routine and things were running about as smoothly as one can expect when you have an adorable but emotional miniature terrorist sharing your flat.
And then we went on holiday.
Which meant our vaguely ordered life was thrown into total and utter disarray. Suddenly we were negotiating issues such as running out of formula and the terrorist rejecting the only one sold in the Thai supermarket; there were stairs to which stair gates couldn’t be attached and the torturous early morning screech of the cockerel in the neighbouring field completely stuffed up his sleep.
It was therefore on this holiday that I decided that travelling with children was the metaphoric equivalent of taking your neatly stacked pack of cards and chucking the whole thing in the air: you have absolutely no idea how it will land and the only guarantee is that it will be messy.
So what happens when parents have the extra-challenging situation of a child with special needs? A child who may find the flights distressing, the destinations terrifyingly unfamiliar and the cultures overwhelming? Do they shelve travelling entirely and stay at home in front of the television?
Not Mary Schaus. Schaus’s six-year-old son Alexander has autism. For Alexander, the diagnosis presents itself in the form of cognitive and sensory challenges as well as delayed speech; all things that could make jetting off to a foreign land an extremely stressful experience.
Yet since Alexander was born, the family has travelled to no less than – take a deep breath - Turkey, Hungary, Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, China, Dubai and the States.
“The most surprising trips were the ones to Turkey and Morocco,” says Schaus. “There was so much love and respect for family travel, no issues for Alex's challenges and they were so kind to my children. Turkey especially.”
Travelling to so many exotic and far-flung places might seem brave to some but Schaus does not see curtailing the family’s wanderlust as an option.
“We don't let Alex's challenges limit us. Travel is essential to growth in any human and I believe it should include the entire family,” she says.
So what makes these adventures possible? Answer - a herculean amount of planning, time and effort. This is for two reasons; firstly to sniff out the experiences that will delight Alex as much as the rest of the family. And secondly, to make sure that the service providers know what is required from them to ensure that travelling is a pleasure rather than a pain.
This last point is crucial. Even in 2020, many travel companies are woefully ill-prepared to competently help families with special needs.
There are however some good steps being made. The International Association of Air Travel (IATA) has introduced a Special Service Request (SSR) code. When someone books a flight and uses this code, it informs the airline that they will have a customer who has an intellectual or developmental disability, and will therefore need to provide extra assistance and consideration. (And, FYI, the code for those who might need it is DPNA).
Excellent, you might think. And you would be right, in theory. But in practice, the introduction of this code has not yet packed the punch that it needs to: frustratingly many airlines have neglected to either inform their staff about the code, or implement an internal infrastructure for its use.
“I recently had a representative from a five star airline ask me what the code was and then ask me to explain what autism is. I have had every single Asian airline have no understanding what the code is for,” says Schaus.
We’ve all had strained conversation with airlines but this level of incompetence must really test the patience.
British Airways however appears to be one airline that is proactively moving in the right direction. Last April, they became the first (and still only) airline to be awarded the Autism Friendly Award by the National Autistic Society. That is in addition to the launch of a visual guide, which explains the sights, sounds and smells travellers may encounter during their flight. This helps special needs travellers arrive prepared for what could otherwise be a stressful new ordeal.
For holiday accommodation options, Airbnb gets a gold star for effort; they have developed their website and app in order to make it easier for families who require certain facilities or lay out.
“We've learned a lot about what's working and what isn't, and we've created a team dedicated to educating our engineers and designers,” says the company.
This includes search filters to only show places or experiences that meet the family’s requirements. After that there is the “accessibility features” section in which each listing has photos and descriptions of the relevant features. Hosts are then encouraged to speak directly with the guests to understand any other special requirements.
This level of attention and helpfulness has gone down very well amongst customers. Mary Schaus is certainly a big fan.
“They now also ask you when you are reviewing a property if it is accessible for special needs. This is amazing. We really need companies to care and be forward looking about these issues. By simply asking, they are bringing awareness to the importance of being accessible and they really need to be commended and supported with our business,” she says.
For those more in the market for package holidays, Mark Warner might be the company to tick the box. Their unique selling point is to offer excellent childcare and kids clubs from five months to eighteen years, and that includes those with special needs. In these cases, they work with the parents on a case by case basis to see how and where they can help.
“We have one to one care available for children with special needs in three of our resorts, all at no extra cost,” explains a spokesperson. “Our childcare team is fully trained so that these children can take part in activities on and off the water. We put a big emphasis on inclusion.”
While going on holiday with children of any description is never straightforward - I refer you back to that pack of cards going up in the air - the rewards and experiences these trips can bring are immeasurable. This could be the time they learn to swim, spot one of the big five or just gain a better appreciation for a different pocket of the world. Travel is a phenomenal teacher; that is no less the case for a child with special needs and it is crucial that awkward airlines and unhelpful travel providers do not deter these families.
And where is Alex the intrepid traveller heading next?
“He’s off to Italy for his third time this Easter. Pizza and gelato everywhere!”
I call that living the dream.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Asia Family Traveller. Never miss an issue by subscribing here.