How to survive school holidays as an autism parent
School holidays are already here for some of us and nearly here for the rest of us in Australia.
How do you greet the arrival of school holidays as an autism parent?
I don’t know about you, but I tend to greet school holidays with a mixture of feelings.
Disbelief that school holidays have come around so quickly again (I swear time is moving faster than it ever did before…)
Relief that we’ve made it to the end of yet another term – woohoo!
Trepidation with the realisation that there will be no break or real respite from parenting for two whole weeks.
Excitement at the prospect of not being a slave to an alarm clock for a little while (how good is that feeling?)
Anticipation of having some rare one on one time with each of my kiddos.
Anxiety at the prospective of keeping three very different children occupied, content and not at each other’s throats for two whole weeks!
I must confess there’s a fair bit of anxiety felt around these parts each school holidays. Yes, I feel the anxiety of having the three kids at home and the stress of keeping them occupied and content (like most other parents, I’d suspect!)
But the anxiety I most fear is that felt by the kids themselves.
After a long and busy term, my beautiful kiddos need some time out to decompress. The strain of controlling their behaviours, struggling with sensory overwhelm and being social at school takes a heavy toll on them.
And while I give them time to just ‘be’, I find if I let them just ‘be’ for too long, the anxiety returns ten-fold. The lack of routine and worry about the eventual return to school starts eating away at them, often resulting in us all finding ourselves in various states of distress within the first week.
You’d have to agree, that’s no way to spend the school holidays.
I’m not sure if this is just our family or not, but if you find yourself in a similar predicament during the school holidays, these strategies might just help you too.
How to Survive the School Holidays as an Autism Parent
Create a holiday routine (especially if you are staying at home)
Routine is so important for anyone on the autism spectrum. Routine provides structure, a sense of control and a source of comfort.
While my kids grumble about their normal school routine, they really are lost without it. Without a routine, their anxiety increases, their emotional regulation crumbles and their ability to deal with sensory issues deteriorates.
While it’s great to have a rest from routine for a while, it can also make the situation a whole lot worse when you try to reinstitute a routine after the holidays inevitably come to an end.
In my experience, that NEVER ends well.
Creating a flexible holiday routine and introducing it at the start of the holidays can mitigate some of these issues. A holiday routine is a practical way to maintain some element of structure for you and for your kids. Plus it doesn’t need to be strict and it also doesn’t need to be tied to set times.
The aim of a holiday routine is to ensure your kids know what to expect each day, without overly restricting your family’s activities. The outcome of using a flexible holiday routine should be that your kids know what’s expected of them but they are not too put out should things change.
Having this reassurance will help them feel less anxious and allow them to be prepared for the fun of each day.
Here’s a sample holiday routine that I’ve put together for my own kids:
As you can see, it’s pretty flexible and is clearly designed for days we are solely at home. Used in conjunction with a wall calendar to highlight future plans & activities, a holiday routine can be a useful visual reminder of what’s expected and what might happen during each day.
Develop a social story if you are heading off on holidays
If you are heading off on holidays, particularly to a new location, it’s so important to provide key information to your kids to help limit their feelings of anxiety. When you put together a social story, addressing the following questions is a great start:
I’ve put together a simple template so you can quickly and easily answer these questions. The other great thing about the template it is focuses on the positives – it asks your child to list what they are most looking forward to which provides a great foundation for talking about the holiday in positive and fun terms:
You can use this visual planner alone or you can take the next step and use it as the basis for a full social story for your next family holiday (like the one we prepared to take the kids away to New Zealand a few years ago).
Plan for some down time (you will all need it)
You may be tempted to fill your days with activities in order to keep the boredom at bay. But don’t forget that holidays can be stressful for everyone and you need to plan for some down time each day to rest and recharge.
We tend to do half day excursions to minimise the stress and strain – this has been a successful strategy when we’ve ventured to the theme parks as an autism family. After a busy & sensory stimulating morning we can then go back home or to our hotel room to rest and relax.
There are many quiet activities you can enjoy as a family on holidays – board games, colouring-in, cards, books, puzzles, activity books, listening to music and even the much longed for afternoon nap. Even a lazy afternoon by the pool may provide the down time you all need (as long as you can get a little rest in there too…)
When on holidays at home, it pays to build quiet time into your holiday schedule too. Have a movie afternoon together. Play some games. Read some books. Encourage everyone to have some alone time in their rooms. As you can see by the holiday schedule I shared above, I’ve made quiet time a priority in the afternoon but that’s what works for our family – your situation may be completely different.
However you plan your holiday, a bit of down time will always be much needed and much appreciated by all.
Find ways to snatch a little time for yourself
This might seem an impossible dream – finding time for yourself amidst the craziness of school holidays and 24/7 parenting? Are you kidding?
Even if you don’t think it can be done, you are bound to be able to snatch some time from somewhere. I’m not talking about a whole morning of pampering or an afternoon drinks session (although they would both be pretty damn awesome!)
I’m talking about a half hour of peace while the kids are occupied with their devices. It could be a 15 minute wander around the backyard. It could even be the 5 minutes you soak up in the shower before facing the day. However you find it, you need to capitalise on the opportunity and enjoy some time for yourself too.
Think about your typical day and try to identify periods where you could actually sit and relax and have some time to yourself. Even better, develop your holiday timetable to make sure there is at least one period each day where you CAN do something for yourself.
Changing your internal monologue can help with this too. Instead of constantly recognising how little time you have to yourself, look at the time you DO have. Of course it would be awesome to have an afternoon or evening to yourself (and if you can arrange it, jump on that!) However, the realities of autism parenting means this is not always possible. So look at what time you can eek out for yourself and be mentally ready to take full advantage of it.
Stay positive – you’ve got this!
Positivity is a powerful thing. Approaching something looking for the positives, rather than searching for the negatives, will more often than not yield a positive outcome.
I must confess I normally greet school holidays with dread. I usually focus on the negatives. Like the fact I won’t get a break for a few weeks. Or the inevitability that there will be meltdowns and stress. Or the prospect of having to drag the kids out of the house when they just want to stay put.
And, guess what? The holidays are then usually crappy because I haven’t bothered even trying to be positive about it. Everyone tends to pick up on my negativity and everything falls apart. Like the last school holidays, when we had nothing planned, put nothing in place and ended up spending far too much time hibernating at home and getting on each other’s nerves.
However, when I approach the holidays with the prospect of enjoyment, as I do when we have plans in place, they are usually pretty great. Like the holidays before those, when we headed to the Gold Coast and enjoyed the theme parks and some down time at our resort. We had planned. We had prepared. And we really, really enjoyed ourselves.
I know it sounds so simple, but if YOU are positive and if you plan and prepare and are committed to making the school holidays work, they will.
So, approach the holidays with positive thoughts. You can do this. You are prepared. You have a schedule in place. You have strategies to use. You know your kids best. You know what will push their buttons and what will send them into fits of happiness.
You can do this.
And I can do it too!
What strategies do you use to survive the school holidays?