It’s practically summer and the world feels open in a way it hasn’t for years. Many of us are traveling for the first time since this all began what felt like a lifetime ago (others may yet be avoiding travel, or traveling for the first time entirely—having not known life before COVID). Regardless of your recent travel itinerary (or lack thereof), what’s always been true is that traveling with children is no easy feat—and it’s even more challenging when traveling with neurodivergent children. Instead of testing the waters, in February, I decided to dive in head first, by taking my son to Dubai. Throughout our trip, as I encountered travel-related frustrations stemming from my son’s differentness, I repeatedly asked myself, “Can I let this go? Does it even matter since I’ll never see these people again?” Pausing to assess each situation and surrounding, and redirect accordingly, helped us walk away with some beautiful lasting memories.
Letting Go and Getting Away
I was nervous about our trip to the UAE, considering what would likely be many challenges awaiting us along the way. Of course there were the usual airport problems that haven’t evaporated during the pandemic: long security lines, flight delays, and the like. Still, I was the most worried about being airborne for 16 hours straight with my son, who has ADHD. This would require a strict in-flight bedtime routine and frequent movement breaks.
I booked us on Emirates, a known family-friendly airline. They do their best to keep families seated together, which is especially important when you have a child who benefits from reminders and monitoring to prevent behavior escalations. I selected seats that were in a row with only two seats and towards the back of the plane closer to the restrooms, leaving us with no third person to contend with for breaks—this was money well spent. I also intentionally booked a later flight that would coincide with my son’s regular bedtime so that I could enjoy a luxurious 10 hours of me-time. While he slept across my lap, I leisurely watched half a dozen movies and took a few short naps.
How I Learned to Leave My Worries Behind and Enjoy Myself
When we landed in Dubai, I was impressed at how well my son managed the flight and the customs lines. He wasn’t jet-lagged, rather he was eager to explore the oceanfront—at 9 pm! I wanted to get him to bed and on the local schedule, but I decided to let it go. We headed out to the beach, where we were greeted with the Burj Al Arab lit up against a dark sky, reflecting off the ocean. That scene confirmed for me that ditching the bedtime routine was the right call for us that particular evening.
The following morning, to my son’s delight, an endless colorful buffet of sugar and carbs waited for us at breakfast. He ran off and returned with a plate heaped full of donuts and pancakes, topped with syrup and powdered sugar. I weighed the consequences of the sweet-saturated pastries, and the impact it might have on his emotions and ability to self-regulate. I considered bringing him healthier options, like fruits and juice, etc., but then I thought some more and realized I didn’t want to test the full throwing-speed velocity of a banana. I decided then and there to let him enjoy his selections. Reflecting back on his smiling face covered in powdered sugar, I don’t regret this decision (not to mention—there is evidence that supports my ultimate decision). I resolved to sip my coffee as I watched him happily devour his sweets and bounce around energetically. For the rest of the week, we made a breakfast game: we decided to see how many donuts he could eat each morning, and we’d try to guess which colors the frosting would be.
In another moment from our trip, we had to pivot while on a walking tour with a guide who was explaining the history of an older part of the city. My son was keen on the experience at first, but he lost interest when we got to the souks. He started jumping, freerunning, and tugging on my sleeve while the guide spoke in detail about the importance of dates (the fruit) to the local cuisine. It was clear; I recognized the signs that my son was over the walking tour. He had the eyes-glazed-over look of overstimulation caused by the crowds and loud surroundings. I abruptly changed course, explaining to the guide that we were going to have to turn back. I thanked him for his time and tipped him a little extra, but decided not to apologize and insinuate that my son was being rude—because I knew he wasn’t. His brain just works differently. However, I knew if we stuck around I’d soon have something to apologize for.
When I’m at home with friends and neighbors, I feel pressure to make my son conform to societal standards and make his behavior fit into the environment around us. I caught myself doing this in our hotel, when he was doing parkour through the lobby, off marble benches and down staircases. I chased after him, whisper-yelling things like “slow down” and “stop jumping.” Then I noticed a few other kids were running around (although not at his intensity) and decided that if other parents weren’t too concerned, why should I be?
More often than not, my son’s actions and unfiltered questions showed how excited and interested he was. He wasn’t being rude or misbehaving—he was enlivened and stimulated by his surroundings! I would never see these people again, but my son would carry these memories with him forever, and I wanted him to remember how happily we explored a new part of the world together.
Thinking of Traveling This Summer? Here are a Few Things to Keep in Mind
- COVID testing is an added step to traveling internationally (and even domestically in some areas). Make sure you plan ahead, and be sure to coordinate the testing dates with flights, and confirm the types of test required (consider paying extra for drive through testing or house-call visits). Our hotel concierge arranged a nurse to visit our room to administer our test before our return flight. It was as easy as calling him in from the pool for five minutes and was well worth the money.
- Remember to set realistic expectations that your children can handle during travel. Neurodivergen kids can successfully complete a trip with some help and a few compromises.
- The price of convenience can be invaluable and help mitigate situations like waiting in long lines or around large crowds. Upgrading your seats, choosing take-out vs. dining in, and purchasing event tickets ahead of time can help alleviate major stress.
- Research your destination to find some outlets just for your kids. For example, I found a Bedouin ghost town to check out that was right up his alley. It was in the middle of the desert, covered in dunes; the perfect landscape for him to run, jump, and yell.
- It’s okay to leave if an activity or event isn’t working for your family. You aren’t obligated to explain yourself or stay until the end. You know your kids best, if you know there is potential for an upset or meltdown, don’t hesitate to cut things short.
- And of course don’t forget to pack screens (tablets, iPhones, etc.) ! Equally as important, download content ahead of time and bring an extra battery pack and charger. Like them or not, we’ve all been there–screens can be a lifesaver for those unexpected bumps in the road. Here’s a list of some of the best iPad and iPhone games this year.
There is comfort to be found amongst strangers. Our trip gave my son the opportunity to be himself, with a clean slate for the duration of our travel. In Dubai, people weren’t expecting the “wild child” to show up, and any past mishaps didn’t follow him there. This allowed for a safe space where he could be himself. His confidence grew as he embraced a world where everyone was “different”: They were from another country, spoke different languages, dressed in different fashions, etc. All children, especially neurodivergent children, should have the chance to explore a world where their differences blend in with those around them, releasing them from the pressure of having to fit in, and allowing them to revel in the simple joys of childhood.
About the Author
Kendra Demler is a single mom and parent writer living in the Bay Area. Her personal experiences have given her a talent for candidly retelling the good, the bad, and sometimes cringe-worthy adventures in neurodivergent and high-needs parenting. Raising her son as a solo parent has driven her passion for using her voice to spread awareness, increase acceptance, and provide support and resources for families of neurodivergent children.