Q&A with Michelle Conover, Neuropsychologist

 How does exposure to new places and experiences contribute to active learning? With exposure to new experiences or people comes an opportunity for problem solving or communication. When you are familiar with the person or the place, you have already learned how to navigate the issue, so there is not as much opportunity for further learning. However, when engaging in a new activity, your brain is more “lit up,” as it’s taking in as much information as possible to understand and assimilate into functioning.

What travel activities would you recommend for a person with autism?

  • On any trip, hitting the highlights of any place or country is a good start.
  • Places of interest, like museums, have the value of learning that’s concrete.
  • Observing your new environment is also important. Taking things in by sitting and relaxing is just as important as running around and fitting as many new activities as possible.
  • Trying new things, such as foods, within and outside your interests is also important. Sign up for a tour to gain additional information.
  • Visit other places you would not necessarily visit. For example, if you’re interested in politics, you can seek out the places that match up with your interests such as City Hall. However, make it a point to explore areas outside your interests to get a broader view such as visiting an old bakery or the fashion district. Anything that the brain is unfamiliar with allows for more connections to be established.
  • Participate in events that the local culture values. Connect with local people and see what they’re interested in. Festivals and other social activities are a great way to experience a new culture.

    How can parents keep the learning going after a trip is over?

  • Ask the child about their highlights/points of interest. It’s a good idea to ask at the end of the day and also to review once you get back home. A good activity to do is to pick the best photos of the trip and make a collage or scrapbook for a keepsake.
  • Once at home, parents can keep doing similar activities with their child. For example, if the trip forced you to try new foods, you can continue that at home and try different restaurants or items to eat. Cooking together also can facilitate this learning.
  • If the trip were to a foreign country, parents and children could continue to use the foreign language at home. For example, substituting basic words or phrases makes interaction less mechanical and more fun (“Ciao” for goodbye).Also, taking turns and writing out fun questions or phrases in a different language on the chalkboard or paper and having the family members guess the response makes mealtime more fun and interactive.

Traveling with autism sensory enhancing experience or overload?

There are pros and cons to exposure to too much information. On one hand, sensory overload can cause meltdowns, anxiety, or panic, where the brain is processing too much information and has no way to regulate and thus the negative emotional output of anxiety. On the other hand, for those who are under-stimulated, that could be a good source of awakening some of the senses. Parents should monitor how the child reacts to a new environment because if it causes a negative response, it can put Parents should observe how the child responds to a new situation because if it causes a negative response, it can put a damper on the whole trip. Parents should prepare ahead by planning to become involved in new experiences but also plan to take some time to rest and relax in a quiet setting. For the person who doesn’t have enough stimulation, touch upon all senses (sight, sounds, smells, touch, and taste) as often as possible.

Some parents are quite reluctant to take their kids anywhere because of meltdowns-any tips you can share to help them travel more?

Meltdowns occur from different sources, whether it’s due to too much or too little information. Even boredom can cause anxiety or irritability. You may find your child has poor frustration tolerance because they have to wait in a line or follow a particular protocol they did not expect.
  • Have the plan to implement in the event of a meltdown. For example, review with your child before the trip what is going to happen if a meltdown occurs. This is helpful in that it sets up rules for child and parent.
  • What can help is to give the child a small toy so that they can bring that out if they are feeling frustrated, angry, upset, etc. This little element can inform the parent that a meltdown is on its way without the pressure of finding the words for the feelings.
  • Know the triggers for a meltdown. Such as being cooped up for too long can cause meltdowns. Too much time with the little brother or sister can be distressing. Also, when parents become upset or anxious, the child will take on your anxiety and project it for you. Tip; never argue in front of the kids, save it for when you get to the hotel.
  • Don’t force situations, meaning if you have your itinerary, don’t be so rigid that it can’t change to accommodate. You may end up not seeing a museum you want to go to, but instead sitting by a lake watching the ducks.
  • Establishing a new basic routine prevents meltdowns. The expectation of what is going to happen always puts people at ease. It’s the unknown that we all struggle with.

    What can parents do when their kids on the spectrum misbehave on vacation?

    If your child acted out or behaved poorly, I think it’s important to speak to your child about how “disappointed” you are and that you know they can do better. Have expectations for your child and that he/she can do better job next time. Give them opportunities to correct a wrong and accept an apology; don’t hold a grudge. You can also take away their toy for the evening to reinforce a loss when they do something they know they shouldn’t be doing. Children with poor memory or attention should be asked to repeat the rules out loud so that they know what is expected of them.

 Successful trips start with careful planning how can parents get their kids to participate?

  • As you create your itinerary, get feedback from your child. Include activities they’re interested in. Even if your child cannot verbalize, but you know they’re interested in dinosaurs or the ocean, you can include relevant activities.
  • You may offer them the chance to make decisions between two museums or give them the opportunity to make a choice regarding what restaurant to eat at.
  • Give them the map and ask them to navigate. Trips to Disneyland or other amusement parks, for example, are a good start since the map is color-coded for easy tracking.

In today’s travel world stress might become an overwhelming factor for some kids- any thoughts on how to help children on the spectrum be less stressed?

  • Pack some of their favorite items such as toys or blanket.
  • If they play video games (coloring books, puzzles, etc.) at home, and they want to bring a pocket video game with them allow them to do that. It can make a long plane ride much more manageable, and also, it can be a real reward for a long day of sightseeing without incident.
  • For some kids, especially with spectrum disorders, a central routine is necessary. Establish a basic routine during travel. For example: get up, have breakfast, talk about plans for the day. This minimizes any anxiety of the unknown.
  • Review issues of safety such as what is the plan if someone gets separated from the group. Also, having a watch on is helpful so that everyone is mindful of the time.
  • Try to include physical activity, if possible. Physical activities help with stress. Consider walking to your destination if it’s a short distance and physically feasible, as this helps with anxiety.

What would you say to parents whose trip turns out a total disaster?

There’s always a positive and negative view of any situation. It’s important to see the good or you will dread family vacations. Also, problem-solve issues as they arise. While you may try to anticipate and plan for everything that can go wrong, you may not be able to do so. Let things go. Attempt to remember that you’re there to have fun. Being open and flexible will allow you to enjoy the short time you have off as a family.      
Q&A with Michelle Conover, Ph.D.Neuropsychologist
Dr. Michelle Conover is a licensed psychologist and Q.M.E., trained at Pacifica, Fielding and UCLA.
She specializes in clinical and forensic neuropsychology with special training and experience with traumatic head injury and neurodegenerative diseases.  Dr. Conover has treated individuals with TBI, PTSD, Autism, Asperger’s, ADD/ADHD, learning difficulties, stroke, personality disorder, addiction and other complicating diseases such as Alzheimer’s. As the clinical director and owner of Southern California Neuropsychology Group in Woodland Hills, CA, she provides neuropsychological assessment, cognitive rehabilitation, and neuro-psychotherapy.

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Margalit Sturm Francus
A reformed dentist who gave up pulling teeth to show her son the world! Need tips on how to #travel with #autism? Follow me on Instagram & Facebook
Margalit Sturm Francus

Margalit Sturm Francus

A reformed dentist who gave up pulling teeth to show her son the world! Need tips on how to #travel with #autism? Follow me on Instagram & Facebook

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