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My job requires that I travel 2-3 times a month all over the US. Since I started my job last year, I’ve been to New York, DC, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, and California. I’ve got more travel planned to Louisiana, Maryland, and North Carolina over the next month or so.
You would think that with all this jetsetting I would be an expert traveler, but I’m not. I can’t seem to get my suitcase to weigh less than 25 pounds, and my backpack makes me look like I’m carrying the weight of the world. Include packing for weather changes, imaginary gym and swim workouts, and random work files I have to carry with me, things get really heavy, really fast. I’ve learned to streamline some of the process. I usually wear the same clothes on every trip. This saves on laundry when I get home. I only pack 2 pairs of shoes. I’ve learned which hotel conditioners I can use on my natural hair as leave-ins. I know exactly which restaurant is by almost every departure gate I use at the airport and how long it takes me to walk there.
But…I have limited experience traveling with children. I helped my little sister one time on a trip from Texas to Minnesota when niece was 5 and my nephew was almost one. We had everything timed, planned, and organized to a T. The best part was that my nephew fell asleep on the flight right away. My niece kept occupied with books, coloring, snacks, and a tablet. I do remember that before we had even reached our layover, my nephew went through all three extra outfits my sister packed for him. We found a semi-quiet, non-crowded spot in the area and let the kids run and play and tire themselves. Yes, it was annoying having to get up every 45 seconds to get my nephew after he crossed the invisible line that cordoned off the area where they could play, but the fact that he fell asleep on the plane made it worth it.
Now my niece is 10 and my nephew is 5. The are well seasoned travelers with several domestic and international flights under their belts. However, traveling with children is still a challenge. Traveling with children who have sensory processing disorder (SPD) can seem daunting. In SPD, the nervous system has a hard time regulating, processing, and interpreting information from one or more of the senses. Different children perceive and process sensory information differently. For example, some children may find loud noises scary, while others like to bang objects and create noise. While most adults have learned to adapt to their specific needs, some children need help in processing sensory information to reach their full potential. Fortunately, lots of parents, therapists, and other community members have tips and suggestions for just this scenario. After searching high and low, I’ve compiled this list of 10 travel tips and gadgets for traveling with children and adults with sensory processing disorder. This list is primarily for airplane travel. We’ll be posting a list for road trips soon.
1. Bring noise canceling headphones. Background noise makes it difficult to processing information and sorting the important from the unimportant. Noise canceling headphones or earmuffs are useful in loud spaces. Headphones lower the overall decibel rate of background noise while still allowing your child to hear someone speaking to them.
2. Make sure your child has slept and is well fed prior to the flight so he or she is regulated. Be prepared with food and water during the flight, especially if the flight is long. Gum chewing or sucking on a lollipop may be helpful to help regulate your child. Snacks such as chewing gum, dye-free licorice, crackers, nuts, and sweet/sour candies are a few ideas.
4. Try to schedule your flight during nap time or at night if your child is able to sleep comfortably on planes. If the flight is during the day, try and have your child run around and use his or her energy before the flight. Get your child engaged in some activities involving heavy work such as animal walks, pushing or pulling luggage, push ups, or big hugs from mom and dad. This proprioceptive input is extremely helpful for children, and can help to calm your child for the next leg of travel.
6. Create a visual schedule for your child. Include everything from driving to the airport, waiting in the terminal, taking off, eating snacks to landing and getting luggage. This way your child will be prepared and feel less anxious about what to expect.
7. Ask for help! To give yourself some down time, ask a family member or friend if they would be willing to travel with you and your child. Make sure your helper understands the importance of helping your child deal with and overcome any sensory challenges on the trip.
8. Call the airline in advance. Explain the concerns about traveling with your child. Many airlines can make arrangements to help you travel a little easier. Let the flight attendant or gate attendant know that you are traveling with a child with special needs who may need additional time to get on the plane.
9. Choose your seats ahead of time, if possible. You and your child may be walking the aisle often just to move around or explore the bathroom and galley area. Just make sure that you’re not blocking the way of the flight attendants as they do their job.
10. Expect some ornery or bad-tempered passengers. It’s possible you might come across some people who have a low tolerance for children and general kid behavior. North Shore Pediatric Therapy suggests that you, write out small note cards explaining that your child has a Sensory Processing Disorder and that as a family/parent/caregiver, you are doing the best you can to travel with minimal interruptions to the routines of those around you. You could even offer nearby passengers earplugs to help block out any extraneous noises. This is definitely NOT a requirement and don’t do this if you don’t feel comfortable.
Although traveling can be a challenge, it can also be a very rewarding experience. With the right around of foresight and preparation, you can help you family have the trip of a lifetime!
Many of the items mentioned in this post are available for purchase in our Sensory Toys for Kids aStore.