CliniKids is a not-for-profit centre integrating world-class research with a clinical service for children with developmental delay and/or an autism diagnosis, and their families. It is the first of its kind for autism in Australia.
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Occupational Therapy Lead Marie Rodatz looks at the strategies to support a great school holiday outing for your child on the autism spectrum.
According the Cambridge dictionary, the meaning of holidays is “a time when someone does not go to work or school but is free to do what they want, such as travel or relax”. This may sound exciting and wonderful to many of us, but it can also bring its own challenges, especially for many autistic people.
Though autistic children may look forward to the holidays, it can also be a stressful time for them due to the lack of routine and predictability. The unique characteristics of your child may mean holidays need some extra planning.
In the SCERTS model which we use at CliniKids, we talk about using transactional supports — including people and the environment — to support children. Transactional supports are things that the adults around the child (parents and/or caregiver, friends, family members, teachers, therapists etc) can put into place that will provide support during the holidays. Let’s look at some transactional supports in more detail:
Prepare (places, activities)
Preparation is key. Take the time now to prepare and plan your holidays. Plan what activities and outings you want to do during the holidays. Gather any resources you may need to make visual schedules, calendars or social stories.
When visiting new places, phone before you go or research their website. This can help you prepare your child. If your child is sensitive to noise, ask if they offer any sensory-friendly sessions or what times are quiet times for visiting. Many places tend to be quieter towards the end of the day e.g. one hour before closing.
Prepare (your friends and family)
If you tend to have a lot of family over to visit you over the holidays, tell your child who will be there and at what time.
If you meet up with friends or family that your child does not see regularly, ask the family members to send you an up-to-date picture of them, so you can talk about them with your child before you see them.
Let your friends and family know before you arrive how your child likes to be greeted; It can relieve some anxiety for your child by helping your family members understand that your child does not like to be hugged or receive an overwhelming ‘hello’, and that your child may need some time to warm up and get comfortable.
Plan a space for regulation
Carry a little care bag with you when you are out and about that includes some of your child’s favourite toys, foods or books to help distract or regulate your child if needed.
Discuss with your child what they can do if they get overwhelmed. This applies to when people come over to your house, you visit others or you are out and about. Agree on a calm place for your child if he/she gets upset. Agree with your child beforehand where this calm space is and how to request it. If you notice your child getting dysregulated, stay calm and take him/her to the agreed space. You know your child best — plan ahead to have preferred toys in the calm space or bring the care bag with you.
Try and keep as many routines the same: e.g. get up at the same time, keep breakfast the same, pack recess and lunch, leave the house around the same time but instead of going to school, plan a trip instead.
Provide predictable sequences to the activities: When visiting new places, it may be helpful to have a predictable routine. This could be something like: get out of car, explore new place with Mum or Dad, sit down to have a snack, play time, go home.
Offer repeated learning opportunities: Some children may enjoy visiting the same playground or the same beach every day. Other children may enjoy doing the same outing every Monday during the holidays.
Create a flexible holiday routine: It can be helpful to overstructure your days and weeks initially. And then gradually add in some “surprises” or “changes” to allow you to be flexible.
Plan for quiet time
Ensure your schedule is realistic and allows breaks for the parent/carer too. Schedule quiet activity time during the day e.g. playing board games, colouring in, reading books, listening to music or podcasts, watching TV together.
Prepare any visual supports
Use a visual schedule (for example, first-then; half days; full days, the whole week or month): Consider the needs of your child and what has worked best in the past. If unsure, discuss this with your child’s therapy team.
A visual schedule can consist of photographs, pictures or images from Google, a representational picture (e.g. generic playground picture or if your child is a strong reader, a written word).
Social stories can be very helpful. You can use social stories for any situation to help your child understand e.g. a special social story for Christmas Day to explain what is going to happen on the day or a social story for going on holidays (prepare your child for travel by car or plane, where you are going, what is going to happen, how long it will take and also include what will be the same as at home).
Sensory properties of the environment: Consider adjusting lighting (some children like to wear sunglasses or a hat), or controlling noise levels (try noise cancelling headphones or earplugs).
Motivation levels of activities: Pick outings to suit your child’s interests. If your child likes animals, go to the zoo, wildlife parks or an aquarium. If your child likes vehicles, go to building sites, or a motor or railway museum. If your child likes to be in the water, visit friends or family who have a pool, or go to a public swimming pool or the beach. If you have more than one child with different interests, try to take turns e.g. on Monday we are doing something animal related and on Tuesday we are doing something vehicle related.
How to offer choices: Most children like to have a say so offer choices where you can or where appropriate. Do you want to go to the beach in the morning or in the afternoon? What do you want to eat? Which favourite toy do you want to bring? If your child gets overwhelmed by choices, offer limited choices (this or that) instead of open-ended questions. You know what works best for your little person.
Every child is unique and will have very different needs in the holidays. Always think about the supports that work for your child and when you had a difficult time in the past, what supports helped your child and your family navigate this situation.