Vacation Tips for Kids with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome
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It's summer, and you're left with that age old quandary: what should we do with the kids? Even for typical kids, summer can be quite a juggling act. You're trying to find things for your kids to do all summer that are safe, entertaining, and maybe, if you're lucky, have some educational value; if you're like most parents, you're trying to hold down a job at the same time. Now, add an autistic kid and things have just gotten exponentially more complicated. Your autistic child needs structure and routine during the summer, and you're at a loss to think of activities that can give it to them. You fear a summer full of meltdowns and regression. What can you do? Not to worry, this chapter will include plenty of tips for ensuring a successful summer for both you and your ASD kid.
Part One: The Art of Taking Vacations
It goes without saying that one very popular summertime activity is taking vacations. Unfortunately, the word "vacation" can strike a sense of dread in even the most hardy of autism parents, because trying to go away on vacation with a child on the autistic spectrum can so often be a disaster.
Here are some ways to make the vacation experience work.
Where to Go
The first thing to take into account when you're planning a vacation with an autistic child is to think very carefully about where you want to go. You want a place that will be autistic friendly. For many people, this means a place that is not too loud or does not offend other sensory quirks of your child. For example, if your kid has tactile issues with sand, you might not want to go to the beach. If they're scared of large animals, you don't want to go to the circus. And so on. Choose a place that matches your child's interests and ability levels.
Where to Stay
Secondly, you want to make sure that you very carefully choose the place that you will be staying. Whether you're staying at a hotel, a camp site, a motel, or renting a house, there are different issues to consider.
If your child has a lot of food issues and sensitivities, you might want to choose a place where you'll have your own kitchen, so you can make your own food. This could include hotel rooms with a small kitchen area, or a rented house with kitchen facilities. If noise is a factor, you want to make sure you're not in a crowded hotel with thin walls where you can hear your neighbors fighting and the ice machine, or elevator, makes noise all night. On the other hand, if your child hates bugs and getting dirty, camping might not be such a good choice.
Don't try to fit your child into a mold of what they "should" want, or what you think should be typical for their age; pay attention to what their actual needs and wants are to ensure a more successful vacation.
Vacations are a great way to make use of something called social stories.
Since most kids with autism are visual learners and they have a need to know what is going to happen ahead of time, social stories work well. To make a social story, you simply need to make or find pictures of the places you will be going to do and the things you will be doing and write out a story that illustrates what your daily activities will be like. The story should give the details of the daily routine so that your child can plan ahead and have a sense of what to expect. Talk about how you are going to get to your vacation spot, who will be coming with you, and what some of the activities will be. Make sure to think of the details when planning your trip.
What should you bring to make your kid more comfortable?
A great idea is to bring a Discman or MP3 player so he can listen to music on the plane or in the car or a favorite toy and definitely, a favorite foods. Try to imagine possible problems that might come up and how you will solve them—and what materials you will need to solve them. Take books, video players or anything else you think will help for distraction during those difficult moments. If you're going on a long car trip, you might want to look up some car games to play, such as trying to spot letters on license plates, 20 questions, or other games one can play in the car to pass the time and keep your child occupied.
Make sure the vacation has some structure to it.
There is nothing more stressful to a child with autism than not knowing what is going to happen. For example, if you're at a beach, maybe schedule swimming time in the morning, a walk on the boardwalk at lunch, time to see nearby attractions or play on any available playgrounds in the afternoon… try to have the day loosely planned out a day ahead of time or at least in the morning of that day so your child knows what to expect.
Most people enjoy the feeling of unstructured free time, but autistic kids are so worried about what might happen next, and how they will cope with it, that they need to have an idea of what is happening. The schedule can be modified to some degree if you need to, but giving your child some advance notice of this (or planning a favored activity for after the change of plans) will have the best results. Be aware that people will always talk, and most people don't know what they're talking about.
If someone makes a rude comment to you or your child, try to ignore them; it's not worth getting upset over. You know you are doing the best you can and that is all that matters.
If you can, try to choose the least-busy times to do any given activity. Do things early or late in the day when most people haven't left yet or have already gone home. If a summer vacation can wait until fall or be taken in early spring, then by all means do it at those times. If you follow these tips, for any vacation you might consider, your autistic child will be in a better state of mind to be able to enjoy him or herself, and your chances of a peaceful vacation will increase.
Part Two: Tips for Staying Home
Maybe you don't have the time or money for a vacation, or you don't want the stress of dealing with one. If you're sticking around the house this summer, don't despair, there are lots of things you can do around the house to keep your little one engaged.
What activities should my autistic kid get involved in?
Simply put, anything that interests them. Many parents, however, mistakenly believe that they need to sign their kid up for every single activity in the town Recreation Guide in order to keep them busy and enriched. Be careful not to over-schedule your child; they need some downtime. After a long school year, they've earned it.
Don't be alarmed if your child doesn't want to do much during the summer. But by the same token, do try to plan some regular activities and outings so that they are still engaged with the world. Find areas of interest; if your child is interested in movies, see if there is a movie-making class or club that meets nearby; if they are into reading, find a book club.
Most towns have town-sponsored recreation programs that are offered during the summer at low cost, and this can be a great place to start. There is everything from sports to arts and crafts and things in between. Some towns even have programs specifically for special needs kids.
What if I don't have enough money?
Money is not a requirement for fun. Take your child to a local pool (but try to go during the off hours when there won't be as many people), or hold pool parties in your yard if you have your own pool, and increase your child's socialization skills at the same time.
Look on your town calendar to see if there are any free concerts in parks, which is often the case. Some towns have outdoor movie nights in parks as well, or a local library might have them. Use the library or a cheap Netflix subscription to rent movies for the family to watch. Also, summer is a great time for festivals; if your child can handle the crowds and sensory stimulation, of course. Festivals do not usually cost anything to get into, and provide lots of entertainment and visual stimulation. Another idea is to go to a craft store or a store that recycles old materials and sells them for craft projects, and have an arts and crafts day.
Some kids are sensitive to the heat, and will be uncomfortable and irritable during the day when the sun is at its peak. If this is a problem, try to choose events where you can go in the evening, or go out on cloudy days.
The importance of routine
One of the hardest parts for autistic kids in summertime is the change in routine. Even if they don't particularly like school, the routine of the school day (getting up at a certain time, going to classes which are usually in the same order, coming home and doing homework, etc.) is comforting to them. They might be at a loss for what to do with their time when summer comes, and they may feel lost and adrift with no routine to anchor them. This is normal for kids with autism.
Try to create a loose routine for your autistic child if you can. Post it on the wall as a visual reminder. Such a schedule could go something like this: "Breakfast, morning activity, lunch, afternoon activity, TV/video game period (if allowed), dinner, pre-bedtime activities. You can create a list of activities that the child can choose from and post those as well so that the child has some idea of what could or might happen, or you could decide ahead of time and post them for the week. Things like going to the park, going to the library, arts and crafts, some kind of sports if your child is interested, baking, reading, whatever you can come up with can be on the list, and you can rotate activities. In some ways, you could make it like a loosely structured, non-academic home school, which might make your child feel more comfortable and reduce behavior problems that might stem from anxiety over loss of routine.
Autism Friendly Vacations
Some destinations are going to be more suited for autistic kids than others. Disney World in Florida has a reputation for being extremely autism-friendly. In fact, if you bring a note from your doctor confirming your child's autism diagnosis and stating what his or her limitations are, Disney will provide something called a "Guest Assistance Pass," which will allow you to have far shorter wait times in lines for rides. Many parents have said this has been a life-saver at Disney World and has enabled their kids to enjoy something they otherwise wouldn't be able to. If you are considering Disney World for a vacation, here are a few things you should be aware of.
- When you are deciding where to stay, consider staying somewhere on campus, as this will make transportation to and from the park much easier. It will also permit you to go back to the hotel and take breaks when you need to.
- Many parents suggest that you not spend the whole day at Disney World, as your child will get over-stimulated and overwhelmed long before the day is over.
- Get a copy of the Walt Disney World Official Guide for Kids. This has information about the noise levels and even the darkness of each ride, which is great to use to figure out which rides an autistic kid who is noise sensitive or scared of the dark might be able to go on.
- Call in advance for reservations to restaurants so your tired and hungry child does not have to wait too long to eat.
- Take advantage of dining with the Disney characters, so that your child can experience the fun of seeing the characters in a less overwhelming environment than the theme park.
Bring earplugs for the rides if your child has sensitivities to noise.
These tips were all submitted by parents who went to Disney World with their autistic kids and had a great time. On the website allears.net, they give tips on how to have a good Disney experience. One parent says,
"Let your autistic child tell you what they want to do—it's their trip after all. There is a tendency to try to run around and do every ride. If your autistic child is scared of a ride, don't push it. Likewise, if they have a favorite ride that they want to ride over and over again, by all means let them. On one trip to Epcot, all my 7-year-old autistic son wanted to do was ride the boat back and forth across the World Showcase lagoon. So we rode it for two hours straight. He loved it. Fun for your autistic child is likely to be different than fun for others in the family, so don't be afraid to split up. We have found walkie-talkies work well for staying in touch and planning when and where to meet up. Also, remember, that the next time you come back, your autistic child will enjoy more of the park than the time before. We are planning our third trip with my son, and he is now 9. I can't wait to see what he will enjoy this time! "
Another parent goes so far as to credit Disney World with helping his autistic daughter improve in many different areas of her life.
"Leave yourself open to miracles. My daughter's first words, first snuggles, great vocabulary improvement and first full use of the toilet all happened at Walt Disney World or on the plane ride back. Something about the place has been magical for us, at least."
Whether you go to Disney World, stay home, or choose another vacation this summer, if you follow a few basic rules, your summer will go much more smoothly. Prepare your child for all that is to come and then watch him or her flourish. And for additional tips and suggestions for helping raise a happy and successful loved one on the autism spectrum, see my book, The Autism Survival Guide. And make sure you are signed up for my FREE Autism newsletter.