Podcast Episode 13. Holidays are a time to relax, rewind and recharge, but more often than not they end up being less about fun and more about stress.
Vicki, an experienced travel consultant, shares tips for making travel less stressful. She understands our perspective because she is also a mother to a daughter with additional needs.
Vicki says preparation is key. Have everything you may ever need to hand, and have a distraction for every occasion. She also says anticipation is part of any holiday, and to make this enjoyable for a child with additional needs it is essential to talk about every part of the trip.
Vicki shares her experiences as a parent and a professional. She explains how repetition is key, and that while holiday location variety can be great, sometimes for children with additional needs familiarity makes life easier. Going back to same place can also reduces concerns around safety as well.
Finally, Vicki talks about the need for time away from your children to recharge your batteries and to encourage their independence, and this time away should be guilt free, although she knows as well as anyone else this is easier said than done.
Show Full Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Journey Skills podcast. This week we’re talking to Vicki. Vicki has a daughter age 15 who has additional needs and Vicki’s also in the travel industry, so we’re going to talk a little bit about Vicki’s experience with her daughter but also about her professional expertise and hopefully she’s going to offer some tips and strategies for when we go on holiday similar sorts of things. Okay, welcome Vicki! Tell us a little bit about your journey, where you are now with your daughter?
VICKI: Thanks, Debra. Madeleine was born with a heart defect and later discovered that she has a genetic defect call arid one B. In the early stages of her life, she had to have operations and she was on being fed with tubes and it was a problem with her eating so when we we’re a family that travels a lot most holidays because we have family in the Caribbean and Florida so we always traveled to see the family. And I have to travel with frozen pureed food on every trip which always was a problem because one time I got to the warm country and there were some times I got stranded and there were no heating devices in the rooms. I used to think How do I heat this frozen food which is now not frozen anymore and I used to use coffee pots.
But anyway, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Travel does get better as the kids get older and thank God for technology, that does offer them some entertainment on our ten-hour flights or our journeys. It is a little bit of guilty pleasure, I guess you would call that. You can only play so many games of hang man and Exynos on the plane and you certainly can’t play hide and seek so it’s really the art of distraction and keeping the kids busy on these flights but no she’s traveling much better now that she’s 15 and it’s great to see this little girl from where she was at the beginning of her little life to now. She’s so much more independent.
My business is I’m a sports travel consultant and I take groups of young athletes down to the Caribbean to play competitive cricket and we do some golf and some football and I’ve had quite a few parents tag on to these trips to the Caribbean. Several times, I’ve had children with special needs with their siblings of the tourist coming down and to see how they manage these severely autistic children on flights and in the accommodation, most of the time if they can, they try and bring a helper. Whether it’s a teenager or a nanny or just somebody else to give them a little bit of a reprieve because it’s not easy and everybody wants to de-stress and relax and enjoy their holiday as well. So, wherever I can help on these vacations, I’ll try provide extra support for them with local staff to help at the hotels or in their villas or wherever.
So, part of my consultancy is when I am organizing these trips for the athletes, we do a really nice fundraising initiative where we give, whatever funds we raise, we give back to the islands that we visit. And because I’m hundred percent involved and hands on while I’m there, I make sure I choose charities that we give this money to and so it could be somewhere in the twenty thousand or thirty thousand pounds which equivalent in Caribbean dollars as a ton of money, could be a hundred and fifty thousand XCD dollars which goes a long way. So, I tend to pick charities that are working with kids with special needs or young adults who need extra support. We’ve done soup kitchens for drug-related problems. So, wherever I feel we have young adults or children that need extra help in these small islands, underdeveloped islands, is what I try and give the money to.
DEBRA: Talking about the traveling with your daughter when she was younger, did she find it much more difficult? Were the situations, you said now, she’s much better at it?
VICKI: Yes, well I think really, it was difficult for us trying to keep her entertained for the ten hours on a flight and it does get better as they get older because they rely, (we rely) they rely on technology and the biggest tip is to really go prepared. Take as many snacks as you can, healthy snacks, because sugar really isn’t something I would endorse on a flight because it does make them more hyper and so does food coloring. I don’t endorse that at all. You want to keep the kids as calm and as relaxed as possible so be prepared with a lot of games. Easy packable games; snakes and ladders, the smaller versions, pads of paper, coloring books. Use your imagination. Go to the pawn store find other things that you can do on the flights. Or crafts and then eventually put a movie on or two or three. But no, it has gotten so much easier as the kids grow up.
DEBRA: You think beforehand, do you prepare her and talk about where you’re going?
VICKI: Yes, you have to let them know what the journey involve is involved and what the journey involves. Madeleine is not good at eating plain food so she refuses even if it’s a basic cheese sandwich with butter which I would tend to make anyway and take with me and cut up cucumbers which is a stable food, she will not try airplane food. I don’t know, never has ventured out. So again, that is something I have to prepare for and I try to “Madeleine, you have to eat a big meal before we leave” even if it’s four-thirty in the morning and then I pack as many healthy snacks as possible.
DEBRA: Do you get her involved in the packing for the holiday?
VICKI: I do very much. I’ve done that with all my kids. A week, sometimes, two weeks before we put our clothes out and we call them outfits. So, this is Monday’s outfit. This is Tuesday’s outfits. I always have to help coordinate the colors because Madi doesn’t really have much of a sense of style and needs a little bit of guidance with that. She may pack heavy sweaters when we’re going to the Caribbean and I have to remind her that it’s a warm climate. So, yes, very much get involved.
Today at fifteen and living at a boarding school, she pretty well can pack on suitcases now. I still have to check to make sure she’s packed seven underwear for seven trips for seven days or she doesn’t put too many bathing suits in or a winter coat into her suitcase and the right shoes. But I think at this point, she’s pretty well on her own doing this now which is wonderful. And the school has supported her tremendously as well because she will go away on weekend and they’ll help her pack a suitcase for the two or three days that she’s away.
DEBRA: Do you think that just come with practice then? Because she’s done it from…
VICKI: Repetition. Everything with Madeleine is repetition. If every trip, every time we cross the road, every bath time still routine this is what you do, this how you do it and eventually we’ll get there. But with travel, yes. I don’t give her passport but I have her think about it Have you got your passport? Have you got US currency? (which she’s got as gift over the years) Have you got a little purse to put that in? Have you got sunblock? Anything that I would think about doing for myself and my two other kids who are older, I do with her. Through repetition, I’m hopeful (well she is doing it on her own now with guidance) but eventually, I know she will do this on her own.
DERBA: Does she find the airport okay?
VICKI: Oh, yes. She loves being in the airport but again as the child with special needs, Madeleine tends to want to wander. Again, repetition. I have to instill in her that you cannot just go over there and “Mom can I go and look at books over there while you’re over there?” “No, Madeleine. You have to stay with me. This is a big airport anything can happen.” Again, it’s every trip. I do have to rein her in a bit. She cannot go on alone and go shopping. She loved to but that to me is not the right environment to give a complete autonomy.
DEBRA: Would you see that eventually she’d be able to do that?
VICKI: Yes, I give her a little bit of slack. Every so often I let her go into town with another friend and I’ll let her go into a store while I’m across the road watching. I think, the school, again prepares them for stranger danger and teaching them you know the basic skills of crossing roads and money exchange. So again, repetition. She’s getting it and she will get it. But no, airports are intimidating for her, not at all.
DEBRA: When you get to wherever you’re traveling to and sounds like nice sunny places, do you find then that you give her any more independence or do you tend to be….
VICKI: That’s a good question because last year I was in St Lucia for another business trip and I have to take her with me for the two weeks and it was an unusual place that we stayed at because it was exposed to yachts coming in to the resort where we’re at. Again, that to me, she’s too vulnerable. She would go down to the beach to be with a dog but I didn’t want her to do this in the early evening or the late afternoons because there are yachts out there and dengue’s coming in and out and she’s too vulnerable. So, in that scenario, I did have to be vigilant at all times and I had other people, other moms who were helping me as I was working.
Another Caribbean island which we’ve been going to for many years, Saint Kitts. She knows they lay of the land; I do let her go to the pool on her own now. It’s very safe island. The resort, they always are very good with the children and they know us from going over the years. So, in that situation, I don’t mind giving her a lot of slack. I wouldn’t do it at night but during the day and I can always have a good visual of her if I’m in the room and I’m normally within a shot anyway. So, yes. Every environment has a different scenario. So yes, I can give her a little bit of leeway.
DEBRA: In terms of when, say when she’s with her siblings, do you let them possibly go, take their places in the holiday?
VICKI: Yes, I do. They’re 20 and 17 now and they’re very good with her. They won’t let her go swimming on her own in the sea but in the pool, not a problem. So, yes, they have a careful eye on her as well. I think the only part that is worrying is these kids are vulnerable and you can tell them a hundred and fifty times don’t go and talk to strangers, don’t go off if they offer you candy or don’t go off if they say they have a doggie in the car which you have to come, don’t go off because they said that your mommy is sick and you must come with him. So again, I can’t stress repetition every time Madi is given a little flexibility, I am instilling her stranger danger and explain to her don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do that.
DEBRA: And you just keep saying that?
VICKI: All the time. I don’t think you could say it too many times with our children.
DEBRA: Because you worry that…
VICKI: They’ll forget one day.
DEBRA: So, in terms of the holiday then, would you suggest that it’s nice to be able to go back to the same place again and again? Because in that way you give them a little bit more freedom?
VICKI: I think variety is nice but again with most of our children who have special needs, they like consistency, they like being in a familiar setting. So, I tend to go to the same places pretty well on holiday. It’s easier for me, it’s easier for the family, it’s easier for Madeleine to adapt. I’m sure it’s like that for most kids and certainly for the kids on the spectrum. They want consistency. So, going back to the same villa or going back to the same resort, I think it helps.
DEBRA: It makes a little bit easier.
VICKI: It does. And then the staff get to know them and they help you, being vigilant as well which is a little bit more relaxed and then going in to a new environment, you don’t know what the staff like, you don’t know what the surroundings like or even things like wildlife and creatures or poisonous spiders and snakes, which we don’t have in the Caribbean, but I know that when I do go to other places, you do have to be careful of these things.
DEBRA: So, if it’s the same place, you got an awareness. I guess, it makes the holiday easier for everyone.
VICKI: Yes, just familiarity.
DEBRA: Including the young person as well.
VICKI: Yes, at this stage in life, I think going to the same places is a bonus.
DEBRA: You talked about your experiences of dealing with siblings who have young people with autism, did you see any situations there where you thought the parents could have handled it better?
VICKI: I think the people around them could have handled it better because autistic kids tend to be a little bit vocal and some people who are there on quiet holidays don’t really understand why a child is being as loud or vocal as some can be. So that’s difficult for the parents, being able to maybe turn around and say “Sorry. Apologies my child is autistic”.
DEBRA: Do you think that’s the best approach?
VICKI: Absolutely. A hundred percent! You can’t hide it and you’ve got to explain to people and then they become a little bit more sympathetic or empathetic and understanding.
DEBRA: Is that your experience?
VICKI: It has been, it has been. And also, one particular family had a very severely autistic child and he did damage to the villa they were staying in. So, luckily, I knew the owners and I explained to them, pre and after. That was all compensated for, properly. But these things happen. To me, if you can go to the same place that you’d been in the past, that child will recognize it as being this somewhere familiar.
DEBRA: And they would be much more comfortable.
VICKI: They would be.
DEBRA: And you’d be more comfortable. I think that’s also important, isn’t it?
VICKI: That’s the key. It’s a holiday. Everybody needs to be in most relaxed environment that they can.
DEBRA: And I wonder how many people don’t go on holiday because they feel…
VICKI: That’s another thing and that’s where Cherry Trees I believe. It’s a wonderful charity that will house children with special needs so their parents can go on holiday. Which I’d like to talk to you further about this because I think we probably need to provide more places like that for our children.
DEBRA: So, they allow parents to go on holiday, themselves? Or they take everyone?
VICKI: They allow the parents to go without the child. So, this summer, my son, for the last 5 summers, my son has volunteered at the school in Leatherhead and it is a reprieve for parents to go on holiday. So it’s a one week camp and my son takes with other counselors (it’s a boarding camp at St John School) and they take these children for the week and they take them to zoos and they take them to the London Eye and they take them to Thorpe Park and they take them to Chessington and they take them to museums. And their parents go off on a holiday. I think it’s lovely because they deserve that break as well.
DEBRA: You think that’s also good for the young person because they get that sense of independence?
VICKI: Absolutely. Young person volunteering and young person at the camp, they get to grow seeing other young children who have similar needs and they keep in touch, amazingly. They keep in touch all summer. I’m talking about children with special needs but also the camp counselors. So, my son and now my second so is volunteering for the first time this summer at the same camp, it has given them such a better understanding and how to deal with Madeleine at home.
So, it’s a bonus for everybody. Bonus for the parents to get away and have one week of total relaxation, the kids are in a great place, they’re having fun with counselors who care and then it’s great for the counselors and they bring out of the city. It’s overwhelming but highly recommend that all parents with kids who are on the spectrum or have special needs take a break and its guilty pleasure. I know, I know what that’s like. But we all need a break.
DEBRA: And we all feel guilty doing it.
VICKI: We do. We do. I went away this weekend and it was guilty pleasure but we all need to have a little bit of a reprieve and it doesn’t mean we love our children less. I come back wanting to see my daughter even more or all my three kids.
DEBRA: You think some parents don’t take that opportunity?
VICKI: They don’t because they feel guilty. I think a lot of it is because they feel somebody else is gonna look after my child and not none of us want to institutionalize our children and put them in a box but this is about sanity and this is about the physical, emotional, mental break for all of us. We’re all human beings. There’s a crack point at some point.
I highly recommend that we take holidays whether it’s a weekend, five days a week. Once your children are set up in an environment where they’re happy and looked after and safe, then you should be able to relax.
DEBRA: I think it’s for some parents so it’s just that feeling that they feel bad having fun…
VICKI: But the kids are having fun. You know, anybody should go and take a look at these camps for special needs kids. They are having a ball…
DEBRA: …And develop the skills that they need for like a month?
VICKI: Developing skills that they never knew they had; rope climbing or water sports. It’s a whole spectrum of things that they can do these camps. It’s amazing! Even learning to throw a ball or play footie or…
DEBRA: …Anything. So back to the sort of traveling, if you had to give parents a tip as sort of a travel professional about how to best help their children when they’re traveling on holiday, what would be some of the things that you’d say? You’ve mentioned about outfits…
VICKI: Preparation. As a parent traveling with special needs kids, you have to be prepared. Weeks before so that you can completely relax. Go to the pawn store has so many other things you could pick up. Little things. Just be prepared. Prepared for the flight; how are you going to occupy that child and maybe not just movies. They need to be stimulated. Be prepared with healthy snacks and be prepared that everybody’s going to have a nice time. Put it in your mind that everybody’s going to have a great time.
DEBRA: The whole family, you mean.
VICKI: Absolutely. I think preparation is key. If I’m not prepared then it’s difficult. Have to have enough things to keep your children busy on the flight so you have to have enough things for them to eat. I’m talking long haul. If you’re taking a trip over to France in a one-hour flight, you probably don’t need as much preparation or a drive a six-hour or seven-hour drive into Europe then yes, you need to be prepared. So again preparation. Just be prepared. Be organized. It’s probably what probably what I’m really trying to say. Be organized. And it doesn’t take a lot to be organized. It takes a little bit of thought, get yourself into a shopping center that has places that have little gadgety toys and have fun with it too! Experiment yourself.
DEBRA: Okay, thank you very much for your time, Vicki. Some useful information there.
VICKI: Yes, I hope so. It’s been a pleasure.
DEBRA: Key takeaways this week? Be prepared wherever you travel. It doesn’t matter how far you’re going, you just be prepared, think about what you need to take and how you can best meet the needs of your young person. And also, guilty pleasures. Take some time for yourself and don’t feel bad about doing it.
Cherry Trees UK
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