" Try to identify any potential difficulties that may arise as a result of the upcoming change to routine."
Going on holiday with a child or adult on the autism spectrum can be a challenging prospect. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. There may be issues with adapting to change, to a new environment or in supporting the individual to manage various forms of transport, new routines and new activities.
Many families successfully take holidays, both close to home and abroad. Success can be dependent on the circumstances and the planning which has taken place prior to going on holiday. The following is indicative of the range of things that a family may need to consider to ensure a successful and enjoyable family break. The guidance offered here is intended to encompass a broad range of potential issues. Not all of it will be applicable to all individuals and families.
Taking some time to consider the impact of the person’s autism, and how best to support them will reap dividends. Some things to think about include:
There are a number of things to think about in the lead up to the holiday, the preparation phase, as well as on the holiday itself. Some areas to consider are:
It is generally recognised that individuals on the spectrum have some degree of difficulty transitioning from one environment to another. Going away on holiday certainly constitutes a very large transition. An important aspect of any transition is that it is properly structured and the person is appropriately supported.
Good planning is of the essence when it comes to holidays. For many people this is part of the fun. When supporting a child or young person on the autism spectrum some aspects of holiday planning have to be extended and thought through in much greater detail than you might typically expect.
Factors to take into consideration include:
While it is generally good practice to provide advance information on upcoming events, tolerance of this varies from person to person. This may be impacted by their actual understanding of the timescale involved and best efforts should be made to increase this knowledge in a concrete way such as a calendar or planner (which should also be used on holiday to show how long till the return home).
If these supports aren’t yet used, Speech and Language Therapy may be able to offer advice on introducing them proactively. The age-old method of ‘9 more sleeps…8 more sleeps, etc’ can be helpful when visually linked to a concrete planner or calendar. This can be done by simply having a picture (or whatever visual the person understands) of a bed each day up until the event, and crossing it out each morning to show how many days remain. A word of caution is however needed here. This approach relies on the person’s concept of a “sleep” being a full night. Many children and young people experience disturbed sleep and are frequently awake during the night. Difficulties with counting “sleeps” can arise if the person’s perception of a full night’s sleep differs from the intended meaning. A personal decision will however need to be made on when best to announce the upcoming holiday.
When on holiday this type of planner (or a daily schedule) can be useful. It can be used to show the duration of the holiday. You never know, with all the support you’ve put in it may be so good the person may not want to come home! This is all the more reason for counting down to the return date. It can also give each day some structure. Important information to show should include:
If there are several children and conflicting interests, some families try taking separate holidays, with one parent going with the child on the spectrum and the other parent with the others. It would be hoped that this could be a short term measure, leading to shared holidays further down the line.
Think small: a holiday consisting solely of a day or two spent enjoyably will be worth so much more than a week of endurance. In addition it will lay down positive associations of holidays hopefully leading to a longer break next time.
Checking out a destination in advance will undoubtedly be helpful. Some parents opt to visit the location first to check suitability. While this may not be necessary or possible for every family, the principle of checking out as many factors as possible is very useful. It may help to access a photo of the actual accommodation and bedroom, however it’s important not to present this in absolute terms as things may change. Some families find it helps to take the child’s actual pillow or a treasured comforter. You will know your child and whether this may help!
On arrival, a ‘risk assessment’ of accommodation and locations, as you would probably normally carry out for your son or daughter, will contribute to things going smoothly.
Whilst on holiday, small, daily transitions can be difficult. Ways to make these as smooth as possible should be considered. The daily planner/schedule discussed earlier should assist, as will knowledge of how the person usually responds. You may need to factor in some strategies for this.
If not already used, it is advisable to teach skills such as using a timer, schedule or planner, well in advance of the holiday. Long term practice will help the person to feel familiar with using the new technique.
A well stocked ‘emergency kit bag’ is a useful strategy to have – this could be a small rucksack containing enjoyable activities, ‘distracting’ activities, food and drink, spare clothing, etc. Think especially of items that will help to reduce anxiety such as a battery operated fan; music player and headphones; cooling wipes and a fragrance that calms the person.
If the worst happens and the person should wander off or become lost, a form of identification in an easily observable position on their clothing will help enormously (even if they can usually give their identification details, in a new and stressful setting this will be much harder). An example might be a discreet ID holder securely attached to a belt loop. If relevant, any emergency medical requirements should also be included.
Take time after the holiday to reflect on successes and difficulties and how you can learn from them for next time. Remember also that the child or adult may have other needs and/or skills by then which will also need to be factored in.
Betts, E.D. & Patrick, N.J. (2006) Homespun Remedies: Strategies in the Home and Community for Children with Autism Spectrum and Other Disorders. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.
Central Scotland Area Services (2009) Service User Holiday Planning Pack. Scottish Autism Internal Resource
Gray, C. & White, A.L. (2002) My Social Stories Book. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.
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