As our country is opening back up, you may have an upcoming family trip on the calendar. While this is a fun experience for the family, a change in routine- as happens on vacation, is not always easy to manage for children on the Autism Spectrum or those with sensory processing difficulties.
As an occupational therapist, it is my job to help my clients to participate in their “occupations”, or anything they “need to do, want to do, or are expected to do” (WFOT.org). As an OT, I want to enable your child and family to engage in meaningful occupations, and that includes the occupation of having an enjoyable family vacation.
Here are 5 tips to make your trip go smoother:
- Maintain a familiar routine: Children thrive on routine, especially those with ASD/sensory processing difficulties. When on vacation, so many things are different. Set your child up for success by maintaining as familiar a routine as possible. For example, if your child normally has dinner, bathtime, reads a book and then goes to bed at home, do this on vacation too! Bringing and using a visual schedule with simple pictures may also help maintain the routine/give your child a sense of control.
- Bring familiar objects from home: In keeping with the idea of maintaining a routine, bringing a few familiar objects with you on your trip may help your child to be more comfortable with the new vacation environment. You could bring your child’s pillow, stuffed animal, noise machine or favorite toy. Have these things waiting in the room where your child will be staying so that when they walk into the new environment, they will immediately recognize these things and be comforted.
- Prepare kids for what they will see/experience before it happens. This can include showing your child pictures/videos of the hotel room where you will be staying, or a place you will visit. Social stories or social story videos can also be very helpful for this! Here is an example: Staying at a Hotel Social Story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbI5vaxpOEM
If you will be visiting the beach or a pool on your vacation, it may also be helpful to introduce sand or water play at home prior to the trip.
- Stay ahead of meltdowns: Be aware of places that may be overstimulating. This may include anywhere noisy, with bright lights, TV/screens, or new faces. Create time/space for “sensory breaks” throughout the day. If you have already worked with your therapist to establish a sensory diet, continue with that. Create a “calm down” area where you are staying and introduce your child to this right away. It is also important to realize that since school has been out and we have been spending more time at home over the past few months, that new places may be even more overwhelming than usual.
- Know your resources: Before you leave for the trip, call the hotel, museum, airline, or other place you will visit to see what resources may be available. Some museums/amusement parks now have designated sensory friendly or sensory inclusive areas that you can utilize. Organizations such as KultureCity and Autism Speaks have some of this information on their websites. KultureCity.org has a map of locations throughout the country that are sensory inclusive or sensory friendly. These locations also typically have sensory bags available (including noise cancelling headphones, fidget toys, etc).
I hope these strategies may help you feel more prepared for an upcoming trip. The goal is to do much as you can to promote a stress-free and fun vacation, but remember that some things will likely go wrong! And when they do, be sure to give your child and yourself grace.
Alysse Miller, MS, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist at Beyond Therapy. She has special interests in sensory processing and Autism Spectrum disorders. She received her OT education at UAB in Birmingham, AL. She currently resides in Madison, MS with her husband and goldendoodle Nelson.