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Spotlight on Vacation & Travel Tips
Going on vacation or traveling, or being on summer and holiday breaks are all times when any of us can experience stress or anxiety. But, for individuals on the autism spectrum these times can be even more stressful because of the changes in routine, expectations, and the environment. In this spotlight, I will present some strategies for minimizing stress and anxiety during less structured times for individuals with ASD. By reviewing this presentation, I hope that you will be able to:
a) Describe why travel can be challenging for individuals with ASD,
b) Define priming and how it can be used to decrease stress and anxiety and increase participation in activities, and
c) Create visual supports to prepare for out of routine activities or teach expectations
Some of the core features of ASD might lead to stress and anxiety around travel or vacation
First, many individuals on the autism spectrum and who have related disabilities have difficulty with change. Because vacation and travel is a change in routine, it might cause stress. Second, individuals with ASD and related disabilities often process information in more concrete and literal ways, which means that abstract information can be more difficult to digest. So, the concept of vacation might need to be presented in more concrete ways and we discuss those ways in a bit. Third, individuals with ASD and related disabilities often react differently to sensory stimuli. When we are in a different routine, we might be exposed to different environments and different people, which can be overwhelming. And finally, individuals with ASD and related disabilities often have social communication deficits, which could make interacting with new people in new environments challenging.
Vacation, travel, summer break, and holidays often result in no school, visits from family and friends, visits to family and friends, outings to different spaces, changes in routine, overnight stays in different spaces, and caregiver stress. The consequences of these events often lead to situations that can evoke stress and anxiety in individuals on the spectrum, such as:
a) Lack of or a different routine
b) Exposure to new people, increased number of people
c) Exposure to new spaces
d) Changes in expectation
e) Unexpected responses
f) Unfamiliar environments and expectations
So, how can you, the caregiver, address these issues or attempt to mitigate these potential times for stress and anxiety? Next, I will present three (3) strategies that might help. It is important to know that each of these activities should be used prior to an event or activity as they serve to prepare the individual for an event or activity.
Planning and preparation are key to successful vacationing and travel, and this goes for individuals on the spectrum as well. To prepare an individual with ASD and related disabilities for vacation or travel, it is important to do what we call priming. Priming is previewing an activity or event before it happens. For example, before going to the beach, an adult can share with the child that on Saturday, the family will drive to the beach for the day. In the morning, we will wake up, eat breakfast, and put on our swimsuits. Then, we will leave at 9 am and drive the car to the beach. We will pitch our beach canopy and set up our chairs. We will swim in the water near the beach and build sand castles. We also will eat our lunch at the beach. After lunch, put all of our things back in the car and drive back home. When we get home, we will take showers to wash off the sand, then have dinner.
Reviewing the sequence of activities that will occur prior the event might help to decrease stress and anxiety. Priming provides a way for individuals with ASD and related disabilities to predict what will happen next and provides them with an opportunity to ask questions about the event, such in the example given, “What happens if it rains?” It also provides an opportunity for adult to problem solve and come up with solutions should the event be altered in any way.
Another strategy used to prepare individuals with ASD and related disabilities for travel or vacation is visual supports. Visual Supports help provide a static referent for upcoming activities or events, meaning that there is a record or a tangible item with the information about the activity or event that a person can look at and hold on to. Let’s review some examples of visual supports.
Many of us use calendars throughout our day to let us know what to do, where to go, or who to meet today, tomorrow, next week, or next month. Calendars also can be helpful for individuals with ASD to show when vacation or travel will occur and when they will return back to school or the usual routine.
Daily schedules provide more details about what to expect during a given day. Daily schedules can help us know when activities begin and end, how long the activity will last, and what will happen next.
Activity schedules provide even more details about what will happen during a specific activity. With these schedules each task within the activity is represented with a picture and/or word.
First/Then boards are a helpful way to show just a part of the activity or day. These are especially helpful when transitioning between activities. These boards show the current activity and what will happen next. It is often helpful to have the less preferred activity in the First column and the more preferred activity in the Then column.
Social Stories and Social Narratives are used to support understanding of a social expectation or situation. These can be helpful particularly for explaining new social situations such as visiting family and friends. Using social stories, we can teach the individual the expected social behavior for the given situation. For example, an individual might have to fly in an airplane to visit family or friends. There are many rules for air travel that we all need to follow to make sure that everyone is safe such as going through security and wearing a seatbelt. A social story can be read with the individual several times prior to getting on the airplane so that they know what to expect.
We might create a picture book to prepare for vacation or travel by getting them familiar with the environment and activities that are associated with the environment. For example, we might share a story with an individual to prime them for the traveling or going on vacation. As in the going to the beach example presented, the adult could write a story about going to the beach. This can be done in a low-tech way by writing it down on paper or in a hi-tech way by creating the story in powerpoint with pictures. The powerpoint book can then be printed. Whether using a low or hi-tech method to create the story, the individual has a tangible reference that can be reviewed many times prior to the event.
Please check out our spotlight on the Basic Visuals Starter Kit or make an appointment to visit the CARD visual supports lab for an opportunity to create your own visuals. Our staff will be happy to assist and we have lots of examples to show.
(During this time, I will show the visuals that KR created.)
The last strategy is to prepare by bringing along extra supplies that the individual might need during vacation or on a trip. This might include extra earplugs or a pair of headphones in case of loud noises. Sometimes having new toys to present can keep children entertained during long trips. Also, being sure to have old favorites on hand such as a stuffed animal or familiar item can bring calm to a stressful situation. When traveling by air, it can help to bring chewy snacks to help with pressure in the ears during ascent and descent. Having an identification badge for individuals who have limited verbal communication or for whom verbal communication becomes difficult when stressed can help if lost or in need of assistance. Be sure to check out our Spotlight on Safety to learn more about our Safety Gear Box and resources for keeping your child safe.
As a review, we have discussed three strategies for helping to reduce stress and anxiety during vacation, traveling, summer break, and holidays. These strategies are: priming by previewing the event before it happens, using visual supports to provide a tangible item with the information about the activity or event that a person can look at and hold on to, and having extra materials on hand to keep everyone calm.
I hope you have found this information useful. Please be sure to check out the powerpoint book and social story examples linked below this video. And, as always, be sure to give us a call if you need any assistance.
Travel Spotlight PPT (This PowerPoint was converted to a tagged PDF by SensusAccess.)
Travel Social Story Template (This file was converted to a tagged PDF by SensusAccess.)