School holidays give parents the opportunity to spend more time with their children. But the break also means two weeks of planning, scheduling and entertaining, on top of any work or life commitments.
If your child is Autistic, school holidays can also create challenges around the sudden lack of routine and predictability. But there are steps you can take to reduce stress and maximise enjoyment.
Here are our top tips for navigating school holidays as a parent of an Autistic child.
Please note these tips are designed for children aged 3 – 12 years old but may be applicable to children outside this age range.
The consistent wake-up times, class schedules and activities in a typical school term can provide a sense of predictability and comfort for many Autistic children. While routine changes during school holidays are impossible to avoid, you can help reduce any discomfort by maintaining parts of their regular routine. This could look like keeping the same meal schedule, providing similar snacks or even a lunchbox, having scheduled sensory breaks, or going to the park for playtime during what would be their lunch break. You can also add a new element to create structure, such as a morning puzzle, breathing exercise or scheduled free time.
Having a conversation with your child to acknowledge the change in routine is important and will help you get a better idea of accommodations you can make that they will find helpful. Asking them about what they’re concerned about, what they’re excited about and how they’d like to spend their time can help you plan activities that bring them joy. Doing so throughout the break can help you manage their changing needs and schedule your days accordingly.
Everyone processes time differently, and two weeks can seem like a large amount of time to spend without their normal routine. Using a print or online calendar to visually explain how much time your child will have off from school and what’s planned for each day is a great way to reduce anxiety and provide a guide for what their break will look like.
Despite your efforts, there will inevitably be days when things don’t go to plan. A train may be late, a queue may be long, or your child may become overwhelmed. Preparing a sensory toolkit that includes things like headphones, fidget toys, books or snacks means that you have a resource on hand to reduce stress and regulate your child during difficult moments. This toolkit can be something you carry or something your child can take when they go out without you. Creating a sensory toolkit together with your child may be an enjoyable holiday activity and allows them to ensure the items selected are best for their sensory preferences.
Preparing for a new activity and visiting new places can sometimes feel more stressful than fun for some children because of all the unknowns. Researching locations in advance can remove some of the uncertainty. Many libraries, museums, theme parks and other public settings have sensory maps, visit guides and social scripts that can help with this.
Some children may enjoy being a part of the research process as an activity in itself.
Try to consider the activity and location you are planning from a sensory perspective with an understanding of your child’s individual needs. This includes the journey to and from the location, especially if you are using public transport to get there. When doing your research, it can help to locate in advance a quieter area you could visit if necessary for a sensory break. For some children it can be helpful to schedule breaks like this in to prevent overstimulation and overwhelm.
School provides Autistic children with the opportunity to socialise with their friends and classmates, but they may miss their school friends during the holidays. Setting up visits with family and friends is an easy way to meet this need, as is finding holiday programs that appeal to your child’s interest. While activities are great, it’s important to remember that downtime is much needed to process, decompress and pursue hobbies. Make sure your child’s calendar has a mix of both to avoid loneliness or overstimulation.
Autistic or not, every child is different, and there’s no one way to design the perfect school break. But by considering these tips and, where possible, including your child in the planning, you can help to reduce uncertainty, stress and overwhelm, and enjoy the time off with your child.