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8 Ways to Survive (and Maybe Even Enjoy) a Family Holiday with a Child with Autism

by: Jennifer Krumins

Work has become tedious. The walls of your home seem to be closing in. You NEED a vacation. But the thought of traveling with your children, especially your child with autism, is less than enticing.

Families need vacations: time to escape the regular chores, schedules and routines of home and family. Holidays mean a chance to break away from routine, a change of pace, new setting, different food, people and activities; not exactly autism friendly! Traveling with children is always more challenging, but planning a vacation with a child with autism can seem downright daunting.

There are ways to alleviate some of the stress and create an enjoyable getaway for every member of the family. Some simple guidelines and smart planning will make a big difference!

Start small

Children with autism do best with learning in small steps. If your child has never had time away from home it is wise to take a “mini vacation” for a few hours, build up to a whole day and soon after that a night away. The more familiar a child is with a new activity the less anxiety they will experience. A few hours spent in an activity close to home that is similar to what you plan to do on vacation, will be worth the time and energy. You may choose to visit a local museum, a nearby beach, a mall or spend some time on a boat. The closer the “mini holiday” matches the real thing, the better. The more practice a child has with an activity (given the proper strategies) the more they will be able to regulate emotions and enjoy the experience.

Take time to preview

Our anxiety levels typically increase when we have no clue what to expect about an upcoming event. Many people have a difficult time with the “unknown.” This is particularly true of kids with autism! As adults, we may choose to browse a travel guide, read rating scales and look at photo galleries of places where we plan to visit in order to preview where we are going and what we can expect. Our children who live with autism will benefit from these activities as well. Browse the Internet, peruse travel brochures and maybe even visit a bookstore and/or library to allow your child to read about a specific place that you plan to visit. There is an abundance of books about traveling on an airplane, visiting grandparents, ocean life or life in big cities. Whatever you decide to do with your family, reading about it is an awesome way to acquaint your children with the idea.

Don’t leave home without the visuals

Visual supports are an absolute necessity when traveling with children that have autism…even if you are away from home for a day! Pictures, calendars, maps, brochures and photos provide individuals with autism a priceless gift of predictability and order. Holidays can be filled with distractions, changes of plans, new events and unknown people. The potential for meltdowns is high when family members are tired, routines are off, and emotions and expectations are on overload and. Visual supports can act as an anxiety reducer and a welcome relief.

Individuals with autism gain a sense of calm from predictability and familiarity. When planning a trip, highlight the route on a map and if you know where you plan to stop, mark those spots on the map. Maps are often appealing to children with autism and they provide a visual tool that the child can hold and manipulate as they travel. For children that can read you may consider providing a list of some of the towns or cities through which you will travel. Children can check them off as they go or just use them as a reference when they want to know, where they are. Maps and trip itineraries are useful tools to reduce anxiety because they provide a tangible reference point and predictability. Route changes can also be made quickly on the map or just written on a piece of paper.

Not knowing how days will be filled and what will happen next is unnerving for individuals who live with autism (and for many non autistic people)! Many of us rely on electronic gadgets or day planners to keep us feeling directed, calm and in control. When planning your family trip, bring along a calendar or a day planner of some sort. Attach a strip of Velcro on each day of the trip and bring along pictures of activities or places that are associated with each day. Photographs, brochure cut outs, or homemade pictures will work. If the child is able to read, then writing on the calendar gives our children the opportunity to see what is coming and to organize the time in their minds. The Velcro offers us the flexibility of changing plans if necessary. It also demonstrates to our kids that events are not always fixed; plans change. The key is to teach the child to refer to the calendar when they are feeling uneasy. Reward them when they do so. The alternative is to listen to a constant barrage of questions.

Plan time fairly

Choose a few favorite activities rather than trying to cram everything into the day. A trip to Disneyland can be a sensory nightmare for a child with autism. Limiting the amount of activity done in a day will go a long way to making the trip more pleasant for the whole family. Do you really have to visit all of the theme parks? Is it necessary to shop in every mall? Must you participate in all of the resort activities? Your child with autism may not be capable of managing the sensory, emotional and social stimulation that more typical children are able to cope with.

Holidays by nature, tend to be very social, unpredictable and novel. Children with autism need “downtime” from the hustle uncertainty of holidays. This may mean allowing him to participate in a favorite activity for a portion of time; whatever activity he truly enjoys doing that helps him to unwind. It may mean that the child spins, jumps, twirls a sensory toy or just sits in a chair. Watching the history channel while the family is down at the beach may be just what the teen with autism needs. The activity is child driven and NOT the parent driven. Using a timer or visual clock helps to set parameters around the activity. Using cell phones or Walkie Talkies allow parents and kids to communicate when they are not in direct contact.

Plan for unstructured time

Children with autism may not be able to generate ideas to amuse themselves and parents shouldn’t have to be entertainment directors. Some simple tools will make unstructured times like travel time and waiting for flights much more bearable. Start with a written or picture menu of all of the available items to play with. Be sure to show only the choices that ARE available! Fidget toys, digital toys, magnetic travel games, ipods, handheld games, a whiteboard with markers and magnetic puzzles are invaluable when down time is non negotiable. “Wait cards” and “Unavailable cards” are invaluable when we need to let a child know that an activity or item is either delayed or not available. These cards must be part of the child’s daily life before the vacation so that they are tolerable for the child during the holiday. Pack a bag that contains all of the activities and be sure to have it handy when the waiting begins. Using a timer or a schedule helps the child know how long the activity will last.

Practice Social skills and expectations

As adults we may find ourselves assuming that a child knows how to act in various situations. Children with autism may have no idea what is expected in a certain setting and there is a good chance that they may not be concerned about what is expected! Different settings have unspoken conventions that maintain a sense of order. When visiting museums, churches, art galleries, public parks, zoos and amusement parks, think about the hidden rules that typical people just instinctively “know.” Avoid embarrassment and frustration by reviewing the “social rules” ahead of time; keep them short and sweet. Ask the child to repeat them back to you and be clear about a reward or reinforcement for abiding by the conventions.

A social script can be quickly written on paper or a whiteboard before the child is expected to participate in an unfamiliar social situation.

For example, the rules of hanging out on the beach could be written as a social script and reviewed each time a child goes to the beach:

The most important item to make sure you bring along on a vacation is the expectation to enjoy it. Our thoughts control much of what we experience so it is worthwhile to affirm in your own mind that this time away will be fun. Remind yourself to really watch your children as they experience new things; smile, breathe deeply and laugh often. When plans don’t quite work remind yourself that “it is what it is” and your reaction to a situation is really what determines the outcome. Choose to be cheerful and positive and your mood will likely rub off on the rest of your family.

Plopping your children in a car, driving for six hours and telling them to stop whining will not likely result in a great vacation! Planning ahead will play a huge role in creating a holiday that is fun filled. There are little things that we take for granted about traveling that we must be aware of so that we can create a great vacation. You need it. Your family needs it. Go ahead and have fun!

See Also:

There Are Many Ways That Raising Special Needs Kids Is Rewarding For Parents
Special needs children will not be easy to raise, but the joy of watching them grow will make it all worthwhile to any parent. One thing you have to know is that when you will not be able to get your hands on a special handbook that will help you ensure that you raise your child right.

About The Author:

Jennifer Krumins is a full time teacher in Ontario, Canada with 20 years of experience in special education and the regular classroom. A mother of three (one of which has autism) she is currently teaching severely challenged teen boys and girls with autism. Please feel free to visit Jennifer’s website at http://www.autismaspirations.com or email her at krumins@autismaspirations.com

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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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