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Off We Go! 7 Ways to Enjoy a Family Holiday with a Child with Autism

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by Jennifer Krumins
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| March/April 2010

Work has become tedious. The walls of your home seem to be closing in. Kids are bored. Your family needs a holiday. But the thought of disrupting the routine that gets you all through the day, especially for your child with autism, is less than enticing.

Families need vacations: time to escape the regular chores, schedules and habits of daily life. Holidays mean a chance to break away from the familiar and explore. They offer a change of pace, new settings, different food, people and activities – not exactly conditions that are autism friendly! Traveling with children is always more challenging, but planning a vacation that includes a child with autism can seem downright daunting.

Don’t give up yet! There are ways to alleviate some of the stress and create an enjoyable getaway. Some simple guidelines and smart planning will make a big difference!

Start Small
Children with autism learn best in small steps. The more familiar a child becomes with a new activity the less anxiety he’ll experience. If your child has never spent time away from home, start with a “mini vacation” for a few hours. Build gradually to a whole day and soon after that, a night away. A few hours spent in an activity close to home, as similar as possible 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 or hiking in the woods. The more practice a child has with an activity (given the proper strategies) the more he will be able to know what to do, 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 browse a travel guide, read rating scales and look at photo galleries of places we plan to visit. This helps us know what to expect. Our children 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 you plan to visit. There is an abundance of books about traveling on an airplane, visiting grandparents, the marvels of the ocean, or life in big cities. Whatever you decide to do as a family, reading about it is an awesome way to acquaint your children with a new setting and the attractions it offers.

Don’t Leave Home Without Visuals
Visual supports are an absolute necessity when traveling with children with autism who are visual learners (not all are!)…even if you are away from home for only a day! Pictures, calendars, maps, brochures, and photos provide individuals with autism the 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, especially when family members are tired, routines are off, and emotions and expectations are on overload. Visual supports can reduce anxiety and be 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 the child can hold and manipulate during travel. For children who can read, 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 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 who don’t)! We rely on electronic gadgets or day planners to keep us feeling directed, calm and in control. When planning your family trip, pack a calendar or a day planner of some sort. Attach a strip of Velcro on each day and bring along pictures of activities or places associated with each day. Photographs, brochure cut outs, or homemade pictures will work. If the child is able to read, supplement visuals with words. These strategies give our children the opportunity to see what is coming and organize the time in their minds. Velcro offers the flexibility of changing plans if necessary. It also demonstrates to our kids that events are not always fixed; plans can change. The key is to teach the child to refer to the calendar when anxiety begins. Be sure to reward them when they do so. The alternative may be listening to a constant barrage of questions or working through a meltdown.

One last point to consider: even if your child doesn’t rely on visual supports while at home, he may need the additional support while on vacation. The added stress and anxiety of unfamiliar locations, people and activities means his ability to process and remain calm is already compromised from the moment he gets out of bed.

Balance the Day
Choose a few favorite activities rather than trying to cram too much into the day. Limiting the amount of time “on the go” will make the trip more pleasant for the whole family. A visit toDisneylandcan be a sensory nightmare for a child with autism. Do you really have to visit all of the theme parks? 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 handle with ease.

Holidays, by nature, tend to be novel, unpredictable and highly social. Children with autism need downtime from the hustle and uncertainty. This may mean carving out time in the schedule for him to participate in a favorite stress-reducing activity on a regular basis. It may mean 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 trick is to make sure the activity is child driven and not parent driven. Use a timer or visual clock to set parameters on the activity. Keep in contact via cell phones or Walkie Talkies.

Plan for Unstructured Time
Most trips involve some measure of unstructured periods, like standing in line, waiting for flights, time on an airplane, or all those in-between moments while getting dressed in the morning, taking showers in tandem, etc. Children with autism may not be able to generate ideas to amuse themselves and parents shouldn’t have to be entertainment directors. Smart parents pack a bag of favorite items to help the child through these times. Start with a written or picture menu of all available items. Fidget toys, digital toys, magnetic travel games and puzzles, iPods, handheld games, a whiteboard with markers are invaluable when down time is non-negotiable.

“Wait cards” and “Unavailable cards” are helpful to let a child know that an activity or item is either delayed or not available. Be sure the child is familiar with using them before leaving for holiday.

Put all the toys and activities together in a bag and be sure to have it handy when the waiting begins. Using a timer or a schedule helps the child know how long the wait will last.

Practice Social Skills and Expectations
Children with autism may have no idea what behaviors are expected in a certain setting (especially a new one). Generalizing behaviors and social skills from one setting to another is not a strong point in individuals on the spectrum. Furthermore, there is a good chance they may not be concerned about what is expected! Social behavior is highly driven by context of the situation and different settings have unspoken conventions that maintain social order. This is especially true when traveling to different countries and experiencing different cultures. Whether you are visiting a museum, church, art gallery, public park, zoo or amusement park, think about the hidden rules that most people instinctively “know.” Avoid frustration and embarrassment for child and parent by reviewing the relevant social rules ahead of time. Keep them short, sweet, and concrete. Ask the child to repeat them back to you and be clear about a reward or reinforcement for abiding by the conventions. Do a short review just before walking into the building or setting.

A social script can be quickly written on paper and carried into the venue, or quick reminder notes can be written on the spot. 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:

People like to play on the beach and some people like to lie down on the beach.

We are careful not to kick sand on people when we walk in the sand.

We can lay our towels next to each other in the family.

We can lay our towels 1 or 2 big steps away from someone we do not know.

When we lift our towels we are careful not to shake sand on other people.

The beach is fun.

Choose to Have Fun
Our thoughts affect our experience to a large measure, so it is worthwhile to affirm in your own mind that the holiday will be fun. Remind yourself to watch your children as they experience new things; smile, breathe deeply and laugh often together. 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. Relaxed pleasure and laughter is contagious, but so is stress and anxiety. Choose to be cheerful and positive and your mood will likely rub off on the rest of your family, including your child with autism.

Start small, preview, use visuals, balance the day, plan for unstructured time, practice social skills and expectations, and choose to have fun… follow these seven suggestions – and you will!

Jennifer Krumins is a full time teacher in Ontario, Canadaand the author of two books: Been There. Done That. Finally Getting it Right and One Step at a Time: ABA and Autism in the Classroom. Visit her website at www.autismaspirations.com.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2010. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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