Summer is a season of change. The established routines of the school year have come to an end and new patterns take their place. For many families, summer vacations are the ultimate change in their routine. If you have a child with autism, this can be both an opportunity and a challenge.
With the Covid-19 pandemic increasingly in the rearview mirror, many families are feeling comfortable reentering the world. For some families, this means vacations to new places or extended visits with family and friends. For others, the changes may be smaller: visiting new places in your hometown and enrolling your child in new summer programs.
Whatever changes summer brings your way, below are practical tips to help you navigate new places and disruptions to your family’s routine.
- Trust Yourself – Nobody knows your child and your family better than you do. Trust your instincts. That’s true while you’re traveling and even while you’re reading this column. If any of the advice below doesn’t feel right for you, that’s fine. If you don’t have time to follow these tips, don’t worry. Each family is different. These tips are not meant to be one-size-fits-all.
- Embrace Change – For young people with autism, change is an opportunity to learn and develop new skills. You and your child may experience a few bumps along the way – but experiencing new people and places can help support the development of their social skills.
- Include Yourself – Parents of children with autism are sometimes so focused on their kids’ needs that they forget about their own. Look for opportunities to enjoy yourself while you are traveling. Your child benefits when your level of stress is lower.
- Build a Calendar – Building a simple daily calendar can help prepare your child for the new activities they’ll experience. Use stickers, images or language they can understand to let them know what to expect the next day. “Tomorrow, we won’t eat breakfast at home; we’ll have it on the plane.” Many families get into the routine of reviewing their calendars together before bedtime or at breakfast each day.
- Use Social Stories – Illustrated books can help prepare your child for unfamiliar experiences – such as meeting new family members or riding in an airplane. You can buy social stories online or make them yourself using simple drawings of stick figures. By telling your child stories of other children going through the same things, you can reduce their anxiety about novel experiences.
- Plan Ahead for Air or Train Travel – If your child is unfamiliar with the airport or train station, consider making a short visit to familiarize them with the location a few days before your departure. Use that time to introduce them to new concepts. “That’s where we’ll wait in line to get our tickets. We’ll give them our luggage over there, and we’ll get it back after we arrive.” Many airports have quiet rooms or nursing rooms; these can be a great place to wait if the lounge area is loud.
- Ask For Accommodations – Many airlines will make accommodations for boarding, allowing you to pre-board or board last, whichever is best for your child. You can also ask flight attendants to limit on-board announcements; some will limit them to ones required by the FAA if the loudspeaker bothers your child.
- Plan for Extra Breaks on Road Trips – If you’re traveling by car, allow time for extra breaks. Frequent bathroom breaks and opportunities to move around increase the chances of a smooth journey.
- Bring the Comforts of Home – Bring as many soothing and familiar things from home as you can. Stuffed animals, books, films and snacks can help you and your child deal with the inevitable stress and challenges that come with any trip.
- Maintain as Much of a Routine as Possible – It’s impossible to maintain your full routine while you’re traveling. That said, continue to implement behavior interventions and treatment plans as much as possible. This will allow your child to learn your expectations for them are the same at home as well as in new places.
- Ask for Help in Advance – If you know your child may struggle with changes in their routine, plan ahead to share caretaking duties. Ask partners, spouses, other family and friends if they can reserve some time to help care for your child. For example, plan for one parent to wake up early with your child and the other parent to handle bath time in the evening. When caregivers wait until a difficult situation arises, emotions can get elevated. By planning ahead, you can often remove some of the stress. Alternatively, if you are traveling alone, activities like the ones below can help provide you with a break.
- Bring Activities – Pack plenty of coloring activities, puzzles and educational games and videos. For younger children, Water Wow books or coloring-by-number books are popular options that are less messy. Legos are a great option for older kids.
- Be Kind to Yourself – No one is perfect, especially when facing the stress of a trip or the changes summer brings to schedules. There will inevitably be times when you’ll be less consistent while you are traveling. This is common to all families and to be expected.
Summer is a time for having fun and making memories. All children and families deserve these experiences. With a little advance planning, the joys of summer vacation can be just as accessible to children with autism and their families as everyone else.