School vacation can be stressful for both parents and children. Read below about some ways to help prepare in order to make school vacation as enjoyable as possible.
How to Prepare for School Vacation
By Kirstin Birtwell, PhD
School vacation weeks are often a welcome respite for students, teachers, and parents. However, some parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) dread when these “vacations” grow near, as both children and parents view school vacation as an acute disruption to an otherwise manageable schedule. Many individuals with ASD have trouble with changes in routines. For some children and teens, these difficulties may manifest in small sleep disruptions, minor mood changes, or a slight uptick in problem behaviors. For others, a routine change may lead to severe outbursts, aggression, noncompliance, significant levels of anxiety, and even physical symptoms such as an increase in gastrointestinal problems.
Parents, therapists, and school staff can help to minimize the effect that an upcoming school vacation can have on the child with a little preparation and collaboration. Given that each child with ASD is unique, it is highly recommended that parents consult with the child’s team several weeks before the vacation will take place. The child’s team can consist of several different players, including his/her classroom teacher, school behavioral specialist, school occupational therapist, school speech pathologist, in-home/community ABA providers, outpatient therapists (speech, occupational), psychologist, pediatrician, etc. These professionals not only know your child’s typical weekly schedule but they also offer valuable insight into which strategies may work for your unique child.
While consulting with professionals that know your child’s specific needs is recommended, there are some universal tips that can be applied to children who present with varying symptom and behavioral severities. The week before the school vacation, start talking with your child about what the next week will entail. Visual supports are always helpful, particularly for children who have limited language skills. For example, using a calendar or creating a social story can help to explain how the vacation week will be different from a typical school week. It is important to focus on the positive aspects of the vacation and discuss some fun things that your son/daughter will be able to do. Next, during the school vacation week, keep the days as consistent as possible with your child’s average school day (e.g., meals, structured activity times, speech therapy in the community, in-home ABA, “recess,”), particularly at the beginning and towards the end of the vacation to minimize the abruptness of the transition. Remember to build in fun activities that your child will enjoy and look forward to (and work towards!). Finally, as you prepare for your child’s return to school, get him/her back on track! A few days before the start of the school week, gradually get your child back on “school time” with regard to bedtimes and wake times. Once again, visual supports such as social stories will be helpful to prepare for the upcoming transition. Again, focus on the positive. For example, stress that when the child returns to school he/she will be able to see their favorite teacher or a friend that they didn’t get a chance to see during the break.
For families with a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, “vacation” or school “break” may invoke more stress and anxiety than the definitions of these words may imply. However, with a little consultation, preparation, and with some simple strategies, your family can experience a smooth (and fun!) school vacation week.