by Kristen Bettencourt, M.S.Ed, BCBC – Northeast Arc’s Autism ABA Services

Vacation weeks are meant to be a time to relax, catch up on sleep, do nothing, visit friends/ family and an escape from the day to day routines of the school day. 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. School vacation weeks can definitely be a challenge but here are some strategies to help you survive those long weeks!

• 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 example, 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 less 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 for the week — use those as a reward for good behavior. Set criteria for 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; sometimes a special snack does 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 such as “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 for the week. Kids have rules at school and know their expectations so 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.

• 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 day care 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 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 the teacher or BCBA to go over it with you so that you can manage their behaviors at home during the week.

• 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! 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 the child’s teachers, therapists or BCBA’s prior to vacation beginning so that you can be as prepared as possible for the week ahead! Best of luck!

To learn more about Northeast Arc’s Autism ABA Services, click here.