Summer vacation can be a time for relaxing, having fun, and traveling. For individuals with autism summer vacation brings about various elements that need to be addressed and can be challenging for them and their families. For some kids, especially those who have difficulty with change and schedule variations, vacation weeks can be the exact opposite of relaxing and can be even more overwhelming for those at home with them all week. In addition, traveling can be a new and stressful experience for those on the spectrum. Hopefully children are enrolled in summer programs run by school districts, camps, academic tutoring, sport activities, or social skill groups. Due to schedules and limitations, it is common to have long gaps in services, especially the latter half of August. School vacation weeks and summer vacation can definitely be a challenge but here are some strategies to help you survive those long weeks along with strategies to help with traveling for those with autism!
• Focus on pre-teaching of the situation and information that will be helpful to them. Try to prepare your child beforehand. If your child attends a morning meeting in school, they most likely understand the basic concepts of a calendar. Try to start referencing the calendar a week or two before vacation so that they are prepared for the schedule change. You can start by circling days that they go to school in that month and put a big x on the days that they aren’t in school (x out the weekends and the vacation week, but put a circle on the week days they do have school). Priming the child by having a visual representation of when there is school and when there isn’t school may help your child tolerate the schedule variation better.
• Try to implement some type of structure throughout the vacation week. Generally, kids who have trouble over vacation are the ones who crave structure so try to implement routines for the days they are home. For ex-ample, use an alarm clock to wake them up consistently at the same time that week, followed by their morning routine — brush teeth, get dressed, then breakfast, etc. If they know what to expect, they might have fewer behaviors.
• If your child uses a visual schedule at school, ask your child’s teacher, school BCBA or home BCBA to make visual icons for a home visual schedule during vacation weeks.
• If your child can read, write down a schedule for them each day and include times so they know what to expect and when.
• Use reinforcement! Maybe you have a couple of fun or exciting activities planned to do for the week, use those as a reward for good behavior. Set criteria to getting to go on the fun activities like “First we have to do errands and if you have a calm body and a calm voice at the stores then we can go to Monkey Joe’s after!” Reinforcers don’t have to be extravagant event; sometimes a special snack or stickers will do the trick!
• A lot of kids have behaviors during vacation because they just don’t know what to do with all the extra time. Help them choose what to do by giving them choices. Remember, they are out of their normal routine and may not know what they can do. By giving them choices “Ok, you can do a new puzzle, paint a picture or watch a movie,” you’re eliminating some anxiety that comes with not knowing what to do. Also, giving kids close-ended choices if they can’t decide (“do you want to play Legos or color? Choose!”) can be really helpful!
• Set rules and expectations for the week. Kids have rules at schools and know their expectations so at home should be no different. Go over their rules with them every morning and remind them of the rules throughout the day. If they use visual rules in school, ask their teacher to either make you a copy or to send the school’s visuals home to be used over vacation.
• If your child responds well to social stories, create a social story about vacation week that consists of activities they can do what they can expect day-to-day and what their choices are if problems arise.
• Ask your child’s teacher ahead of time if there’s anything you can work on at home over vacation. It may sound silly but sometimes kids feel comforted with at least some part of their day being familiar to them. It is also good to decrease the risk of regression without school time.
• If they will be going to a day care or having a sitter over the house, make sure they experience the sitter or the setting prior to vacation week. Maybe you just go and check out the daycare after school one day or the sitter comes by to just say hi and hang out for 30 minutes. Priming your child prior to these new changes should help them tolerate the changes more appropriately.
• Ask school to give you some ideas for activities, games, reinforcers, etc. Often times, kids are exposed to different things at school that aren’t in the home. If you ask ahead, you may be able to incorporate novel games, reinforcers and activities from school into the home.
• If your child has a behavior plan at school, ask their teacher or BCBA to go over it with you so that you can manage their behaviors at home during the week. If they have home services, review the plan with their BCBA and ask how to incorporate during the vacation.
• If your child receives home services, ask for support from your providers or BCBA. They may be able to add additional hours or give
you some specific suggestions for the vacation week.
• Look to your local community for autism-friendly events throughout the week! Northeast Arc’s Autism Support Center has a lot of fun activities planned for vacation times. Also look into programs that are offered through the Spotlight, Rec, and P.R.E.P. programs.
• For travel, prepare your child for the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the travel destination in advance. Social stories, video clips, or storybooks can help give your child a preview of what they might experience. Show your child photographs of the destination, the plane (or other vehicle), the hotel, etc. so that they know what to expect before they go.
• Bring favorite toys and activities as well as prepackaged snacks, electronic tablets/iPads, iPods/MP3 players, DVD players and headphones with favorite DVDs, crayons and card games, as well as a change of clothes and travel-sized toiletries that can be easily reached for long car or plane rides. If you are driving to your destination and your child has difficulty riding in the car, consider driving at night, after dinner, or during your child’s regular bedtime in hopes that they will sleep for most of the journey.
• If your child has sensory issues around food or textures of clothing, it may be important to pack your own food and bring the child’s favorite blanket or bedding. Take anything that will make the experience easier but have a Plan B as plans can always change unexpectedly.
• If you are staying in a hotel during an extended vacation, consider staying at a local hotel for one night to expose your child to sleeping in an unfamiliar location and unfamiliar bed. Call ahead to your destination to inquire about any possible accommodations such as a room on the first floor to avoid the elevator and stairs, adjoining rooms when traveling with extended family, or specialty passes such as those that help avoid long lines at amusement parks. Most airlines also offer “trial runs” of what to expect for taking a plane trip which can be very helpful for your child.
• Safety is of utmost concern when traveling anywhere. It is important to have your child’s information handy in case of an emergency. Make sure your child knows and can recite their personal information. However if they cannot, they should have some type of identification on them at all times. Include your child’s name, guardian’s name, diagnosis, phone number and if necessary further instructions. This will be extremely helpful if your child happens to wander off.
Once at your destination, there is usually a rush of excitement to see and do everything it has to offer but make sure to build in some free time to relax. Travel can be enriching and fun. It offers a break from school, therapy, homework, housework, deadlines and bedtime battles. The most important thing is to start slowly. Take your time by traveling short distances and for small time increments and work your way up to longer vacations.
Vacations are a great time to try new things! A lot of children and adults don’t like to try new things in general, especially after a long day at school but days without school may be the time to try some new adventures! The above list is not exhaustive by any means. For specific suggestions catered to your child, reach out to your child’s teachers, therapists and BCBAs prior to vacation beginning so that you can be as prepared as possible for the time-off ahead!
To learn more about Northeast Arc’s Autism ABA Services, call 978-624-2352 or email us.