Ah the excitement of summer; vacations with family, long days with friends, and a break from the daily grind of school. For the average child, summer vacation is something to look forward to with growing anticipation of all the fun yet to be had. But for a child with ASD, summer most likely means a break from trusted routine and gaps in services as programs close and/or therapists/support staff enjoy their own vacations. Families of children with ASD may approach summers with dread: how to fill all the time, create special memories instead of struggle to manage behaviors, and bridge familiar services? The good news is that with some investment in planning and thorough preparation – all families can enjoy a smooth summer vacation.
Let’s be honest, planning for summer vacation with any child(ren), let alone those on the spectrum, can be a challenging task for parents. But the key to ensuring a smooth summer vacation with a child on the spectrum is establishing appropriate expectations early and then planning carefully to ensure as much of a child’s routine can continue to be followed as possible. Which brings us to the first of our 9 tips for having a smooth summer vacation with a child on the spectrum:
- Prepare your child as far in advance as possible for your family’s vacation. Time to build and manage expectations can be critical, so do not indulge in any spontaneous trips at the last minute. The average family would have a challenging time keeping everyone together, let alone a child with ASD who thrives on predictability. Make travel arrangements as far in advance as possible and begin discussing where you will be going with your child. Utilize the internet to show your child pictures of the hotel or other accommodations where you will be staying. Open a map and plot the route you will take via car, boat, plane, etc. and discuss how you can check off each section of your journey in route. Help your child create a predictable path so he or she can visualize the trip, know what to expect once they arrive, and help them feel secure in where you will be staying.
- As much as you may want to visit a distant relative along the way, try to keep other family members and friends at bay if possible. It can be challenging enough dealing with the chaos of a new environment for any child, however for a child with ASD the expectation of polite conversation with someone they have not seen in years is unrealistic. Family and friends may mean well, but probably are not well versed in how to deal with children on the spectrum. If you decide you must visit friends or family, help educate them about ASD and set realistic expectations about the amount of time you will have to visit.
- If you will be traveling by car, consider traveling in a trailer or motor home so that you can keep the environment consistent for your child along the way. If your family is able to purchase such a vehicle, you can use it again and again for trips which will truly help your child feel familiar in their environment. You can also rent or borrow similar vehicles in order to create a similar effect.
- Keep meal times and contents as consistent as possible so that your child continues on his or her routine, again creating that safe and predictable environment. Utilize accommodations with the ability to prep meals on-site so that you can avoid unfamiliar restaurants and plan for the types of food (and preparation techniques) your child is accustomed to. Research your destination and bring along key foods that may be difficult to find outside of your region/size city.
- Discuss the activities your family plans to engage in and practice anything new so that your child can prepare for the events. Plan backup activities to help in the event of inclement weather and/or foul temperament and share those with your child (i.e. “If it is sunny we will go to the beach but if it is raining we will visit this museum.”).
- Help your child select lovey or anchor items to bring along from home to help him or her feel comfortable in their new environment(s). For example, a loved book, toy, doll, DVD or video game can help ground a child in an unfamiliar setting. Discuss how your child will be able to bring said item(s) and encourage him or her to visualize the trip with them (“won’t Wally the dinosaur love to look out the window of the plane and see all the clouds?”).
- Schedule a special event for your child according to his or her interests. If your child is very interested in a particular animal, plan a day at a zoo or excursion and help your child look forward to the event as a reward.
- Utilize a calendar and plot your family’s itinerary, visiting it often to count down the days and create a clear schedule of events. Again, creating a predictable time will not only help to calm your child with ASD, but will also help you organize the vacation and ensure everything is prepped ahead of time. You won’t find yourself struggling to fill the days or without a backup once it is all laid out.
- Plan some time for yourself. Being a parent is tough! Every parent wants to spend quality time with their child(ren), particularly during family vacations. But in order to do this and be fully present, you must ensure that you yourself are emotionally and physically prepared for the journey. Your child with ASD will be faced with new challenges, hopefully curtailed by your careful planning, and will look to you for encouragement and support. If you have run yourself ragged trying to get everything in order, work, and manage your home, then you will not have the emotional bandwidth to enjoy your family time. Prep ahead and plan some time while your with ASD is in a summer program or with a trusted caretaker to take care of yourself.
Summer vacations can be daunting but with some time, planning, and self-care you can pull off a wonderful time filled with lasting family memories for your child on the spectrum.