Bag of Tricks: The summer travel (special needs) survival edition

June 17,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

We're heading to the beach for a week tomorrow. I still have residual PTSD flashbacks from the last time we did this, two years ago, and we had that awful beach house experience. This year, though, I just know will be different. We're headed to the Outer Banks--a place we all truly love. I'm looking forward to the downtime, to the feel of sand between my toes, to the sight of the ocean in the early morning, and that special quiet that falls upon a beach at night. We've also rented a house without WiFi, which, oddly, makes me pretty happy, too. 

We haven't told L. this, though.

Beach weeks with L. can be tricky things. He has limited patience for spending too long parked at the beach. The sand bothers him, the sea salt gives him a rash after awhile; sometimes it's too windy, other times too hot. He loves the ocean, though--it's just that sometimes his senses get too overloaded there, though, and he needs a break. The good thing about vacationing with an older child with AS is that he has become, little by little, more adept at developing his own coping skills when away from home. We no longer have to provide him with as many tricks and distractions--only with gentle (or not-so-gentle, sometimes) reminders of what he could do to deal with his feelings. The downside is that sometimes he needs the help, and we are slow to respond because we expected him to cope on his own.

I don't have any earth-shattering advice for how to make a week away from home an easy, stress-free event for an anxious, sensor-sensitive child on the spectrum, but I do know what we do to help L. Here are some of our "tricks"--we are continuously adding to the list!

Bring favorite bedding with you, wherever you go, whether it's a favorite pillow, comforter, or blanket. Years ago we bought him a sleeping bag, to help with some other nighttime sleeping issues he was having. Now that sleeping bag goes with us on every trip, and just having that familiar feel of it on top of him, or under him, provides a sense of security.

Portable fan. I bought a small, inexpensive one from Target two years ago, and we always take this with us. L.is very temperature sensitive, and often can't get to sleep if he's in the slightest bit too hot (strangely, being too cold doesn't seem to bother him--his internal thermostat runs "hot"). The fan has been a lifesaver on many away trips. He likes the feel of it blowing directly on his face, and he's told us it helps "block" out unfamiliar smells, too.

Pack food favorites. Even if your child doesn't have a rigid, limited diet the way L. does, many anxious kids, and kids on the spectrum, are disrupted by travel and will lose their appetites, or fall back on previous rigid eating habits. We find that having a collection of dry, crunchy foods in the car helps with car travel, as well as having a collection of these on hand in hotel rooms or beach houses. We also bring along some of L.'s stock favorites, like the cereal he eats, or the microwave noodle bowls he lives on during the summer. Sometimes having or not having some of these reliable favorites can make or break the first day or two of a trip!

Build in regular "quiet" time indoors, in a comfortable place. It's tempting to be on the go all day long when you're on vacation--especially when you're at the beach and so much of the vacation time is spent lounging around on the sand. While this may seem relaxing to us grown-up people, it can rapidly become too much for a child like L., who is overwhelmed quickly by all the sounds, smells, temperatures of the outside.

Be realistic. No matter how much progress and flexibility your child has recently shown back home, or at school, expect a lot of this to go out the window when you leave for vacation. Keep daily activities and plans for day trips when away simple, and always build in an "escape plan" if these outings go wrong. If you are planning a longer vacation, be prepared to take it a day at a time, and try and plan as you go.

If you have an older child, maximize this opportunity to engage them in the planning of daily activities while you're away. Instead of asking open-ended questions like "what would you like to do today?" present the child with a short list of possible activities: a visit to a lighthouse, for instance, or a trip into town for miniature golf and lunch.

Divide up duties between you and your partner, or other family members, so no one parent feels he/she is spending too much time "giving up" vacation time in order to help your child on the spectrum cope. It's good to work out a plan ahead of time, because sometimes resentment can set in quickly when you're on vacation, and out of your element yourselves. I haven't always been good at this but I've learned over the years just how important it is to pack up all good teamwork and communication skills with you when you leave for trip.

Bring your sense of humor with you. Always. 

 

Have a great weekend!