For many of us who have children on the autistic spectrum, long gone are the expectations of spending glorious temperate days lounging under a coconut palm in a tropical paradise while watching the kids effortlessly scoop sea-critters into a bucket of brine. Understandably, some of us may decide to forego summer fun-in-the-sun getaways. Our experience has been that taking a family vacation is “just too difficult!” and these days, also too expensive. But with a little planning, family vacations need not be so stressful, and may even be joyful!
So what can we do to enjoy time together while on holiday?
First, it is important to consider where our children are in their ability to process and hold information, to evaluate their sensory needs, and to contemplate how well they are able to respond to stress (seemingly fun-filled environments can be completely overwhelming for our kids). Extensive preparation is key for all of these.
Tip #1 – Focus on doing something that you know your child enjoys.
Soon after I adopted my son, Neal, from an orphanage in Russia, we joined my family reunion at a beach house in Delaware. When we get to the beach, it is clear that Neal is petrified of sand, of water, of anything to do with the beach. I make excuses to my family, “He doesn’t know the ocean. He comes from the Ural mountains in Siberia, for goodness’ sake.” Even as I defend him, I’m disappointed. I love the ocean, and I yearn to share the joy of the boundless sea with my son. Instead, we surrender, and end up spending our time on the patio of the beach house where there’s a wading pool. We’re joined by my mother, who was also raised in the mountains – the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, and she doesn’t like getting sandy.
Know what truly interests your child and plan your trip where you know he/she can be successful. Also, it is important to note that our children’s ability to regulate their own emotional states is largely affected by our own. So if we are anxious, disappointed, frustrated, or angry, guess who’s going to feel even more so?
Tip #2 – Prepare your child’s sensory system. Anticipate, it makes Sense!
If you decide to go somewhere you’ve never been with your child, or try new activities together, make the effort to really prepare (weeks before you take your trip, if possible). After the “failed” beach experience, one of my son’s therapists, Shelley Cox, and I take Neal close to the ocean. Shelley takes a bucket of sand and actually brings the ocean to Neal. Slowly and compassionately we allow Neal to get acclimated. First Shelley puts sand on his feet, rubbing it gently on his skin. I then realize that the hot, scratchy sand must have been irritating to his sensitive tactile system, reflecting why he avoided walking on the sand, preferring to be carried to his beach blanket. I am even clearer that Neal’s fierce preferences are not random. I better understand his world and anticipate his needs.
Each day Neal walks a few steps closer to the beach. Shelley continues to bring the various elements of our impending vacations experience to him. He smells the water Shelley brings to him; she pours it over his legs, getting a sense of his comfort zone. This goes on for seven days, until, finally, Neal walks on the sand to the ocean with confidence. For the rest of the summer, Neal is able to walk to the ocean with me. He wants to. Today, Neal loves the surf and can’t wait to jump in the waves!
Tip # 3 Rehearsals for life: Practice, Practice, Practice!
Before we fly on an airplane with Neal, we role-play everything you can imagine – packing bags, waiting in lines, taking off his shoes and going through security lines, placing luggage under the seat, wearing a seat belt, and sitting patiently. We use visuals – we watch DVDs of airplanes, go online for pictures, we pretend play with toy airplanes, look through airplane magazines. We practice placing our hands over our ears during take-off/landing and we actually visit the airport.
If he is going to meet new people, we show him pictures and tell a story about them, letting him “meet” them first in the comfort of our home. If we are visiting family members whom he hasn’t seen for a while, we show him photos of passed experiences and current photos so he can see what they look like now.
We use social stories to help make sense of new experiences. This provides Neal with a sense of control, and diminishes his anxiety.