The holidays are a time when schedules and routines are interrupted. This can be difficult on anyone, but the change in routine can be especially hard for kids who are on the autism spectrum. On top of school break, therapy schedules are often also changed, and many new experiences are added in such as traveling, seeing family, opening gifts, and other holiday festivities. While these experiences may be exciting for most, they can also be overwhelming for children who are used to routine and may have differing sensory needs.
Here are some tips for overcoming the difficulties of traveling over the holidays:
- Talk about it
Foreshadowing can be very helpful for kids with autism who count on routines. Let them know that things are going to be different, what to expect while traveling, and what to expect during the holiday festivities. Some strategies for doing this could be role-playing, visual schedules, and social stories (some examples of these are included below).
- Car ride social story http://projectautism.org/blog/social-story-riding-in-the-car-for-road-trip
- Plane example social story https://lovemanytrustfew.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/we-are-going-on-a-plane-social-story-2.ppt
- Visual schedules and how to use them https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/using-visual-schedules-a-guide-for-parents
- Pack the right gear
This can be extremely important for kids who are used to routine. They may have special comfort objects that they use on a daily basis and it’s important to bring these things along! This could be their favorite blanket, their iPad with their favorite videos, sensory toys they like to use, noise cancelling headphones, weighted blankets, favorite reinforcers, etc. If they have food difficulties, it can also be important to pack food that you know they like. This can include car snacks as well as alternatives to holiday meals if you know they may not like the food being served. It’s always better to be over prepared than under prepared!
- Take breaks while traveling
Traveling breaks are very important. We all know that feeling where you have to use the bathroom so bad, but there aren’t any rest stops coming up. For kids that struggle with communication, this is what it can feel like every time they have to use the bathroom but they’re stuck in the car. It’s important to take breaks frequently enough to reduce the likelihood of behavioral problems resulting from not being able to communicate their needs. It can also be helpful to put these breaks into visual schedules so kids know when the rest stops will be available. If your child has a difficult time sitting still for long periods of time, it may also be beneficial to add in breaks for the child to get in some physical activity!
- Be realistic and anticipate their needs
It’s important to be realistic about your children’s tolerance over the holidays. If you know they have a hard time being in social situations after a certain amount of time, try to honor this by scheduling breaks during gatherings. Let your family know what your child’s limits are. It is better to let your child take the much-needed break than risk behavioral problems during the holiday. Sensory tools like sensory toys, noise cancelling headphones, and weight blankets can also help with this.
These are just a few suggestions for making traveling over the holidays a bit easier! If you’re traveling by plane, you can also consider alerting the airline that your child has autism and asking for accommodations such as pre-boarding, boarding last, getting bulkhead seats (have more leg room), and making sure that they have food that your child will eat! Just make sure to have proof of their diagnosis, some airlines may ask for it.
Happy travels and happy holidays!
*This information is provided for informational and educational purposes only and should not be used to replace consultation with your doctor or qualified health professional.