6 tips to help autistic kids manage routine change during the school holidays

Team Kindship
March 31, 2022
5 minutes

I feel like many parents have mixed emotions about school holidays.

Relief. Thank goodness for a relax in routine, no more school lunches for a while and no more yelling “Hurry up we are going to be late for school” mornings.

Happiness. Can’t wait to spend some extra time with the kiddies, time is just going way too fast.

Excitement.  Woohoo, time for weekends away and all of the fun family activities!

Anxiety. How am I going to manage the work/mum life balance? The “Mum I’m bored”, the 892 sibling fights that are bound to happen, the endless playdates and catering to the different ages.

Often, it’s a mix of all of the above!

But for parents of autistic children, the realities of what school holidays means for their child can have them worryingly anticipating their arrival.  It can be a very overwhelming and daunting feeling knowing how the disruption of routine will impact their child’s emotions and behaviour.

I remember before my daughter was diagnosed, she really struggled with weekends and I had no idea why? I was always looking so forward to them and it was so nice to know that I would have an extra pair of hands to help. But she consistently struggled. Meltdowns consistently happened and she was either over the top excited or crying and distressed. My husband and I were at a loss and it really impacted our family dynamic. Most of the times it just felt so much easier to stay at home, to not meet with friends at the beach or do spontaneous family things.

Once we became acquainted with autism, it all started to make sense. Weekends weren’t her normal routine, she didn’t know how to cope with the excitement of having her dad home for two days, she struggled with not knowing what to expect or what was happening next. She needed down time, assurance and time to regulate and we had no idea.

Once she started school at least I knew her triggers and sensitivities, so I was able to try to prepare a little better for it. But school holidays are a lot different then just managing change that occurs on a weekend, so I knew I needed to really up the ante. To try to both plan for success and to set her up for success.

Having a big extended break can be quite the disorientating and overwhelming feeling for children on the spectrum. Over the years I have found that there are strategies that can be put in place to help bring some predictability and calmness to the holidays. A good starting point is to make some sort of countdown calendar to remind them of the impending holiday, this brings some preparation and control to their minds before they even start.

Here are some other useful tips to consider.

Maintain some routine where possible

The reality is maintaining constant routine throughout the whole duration of the holidays is a little impossible. But its also good to give your autistic child opportunities for change and to learn skills to adapt.

Having structure and routine brings a sense of control and certainty and there are a few ways to try to incorporate this within the holidays.

-Waking up at the same time each day

-Keep some things the same each day. For example, sticking to a morning routine. Getting up at the same time, quiet time, breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth and then a regulation activity (swing, trampoline). It might even be useful to have a little morning routine checklist to help bring some early morning clarity, knowing that they have started their day with familiarity.

-Try to bring some structure to the day. For example, after the morning routine you might set the days out in blocks and you could have a visual guide showing this. Morning block is the routine. Then the next block either staying home or activity. Next block is to signal it will be lunch time. Followed by the afternoon block etc. This way nothing has to be set in stone, but it divides the day up and this is a way to bring in some organisation.

Use social stories

-Social stories are such a great tool to bring clarity and understanding to situations that cause anxiety or overwhelming feelings. They work to assist children on the spectrum with a visual guide to understand. Short sentences alongside pictures that create a scene in which they can learn about.

Perhaps you are planning a little weekend getaway with friends? You could make a social story about that to assist in preparing your child on what to expect. Example sentences might look like this:

-On Thursday we are going to pack the car to leave for our holiday

-We will wake up early to go on our holiday. You might be a little bit tired but that’s ok you can rest in the car.

-The drive will be long, but we will stop for some lunch. We will arrive in the afternoon.

-This is where we are staying. It has a pool, a park and a games room.

-We will pack your headphones, weighted blanket and favourite fidget toys.

-We are meeting our friends there.

-We can have lunch and dinner with our friends and will spend time with them.

-When we feel like some quiet time, we can go back to our holiday room.

-We will come home on Sunday.

-Holidays are fun.

Implement down time

We all need to take time to recharge our batteries and down time is necessary for all of us. For autistic children it is essential to help them calm busy minds, decompress and regulate emotions…without it, burnout is inevitable.

There are two ways which I implement down time into the school holidays. The first is to ensure I allocate days where we stay home. I simple do this by making sure we have down days in between our busy days, days where we just stay home and give ourselves time to recharge and reset.

The next thing I do (which is my non-negotiable) is incorporate down time into every single day. We might go out in the morning so then I have a few hours at home. I feel this helps to set my daughter up for success. It can be absolutely exhausting for her to be out and about and social so meltdowns after are inevitable, however when I plan for breaks in between they are much less extreme, and her emotions are a little easier for her to manage.

Provide activity ideas

Sometimes it can be an overwhelming thought for autistic children when they are bored or required to entertain themselves. I know my daughter immediately gets frustrated, she needs some guidance and structure and has a hard time using her imagination and deciding what to do or what to play.

A nice idea is to make a list of fun home activities together. Use this along with any other ideas you think of to make an activity choice board. When my daughter was younger I used to use visuals for everything so in this case I would find pictures of activities (painting, drawing, Lego, magnetic play, playdough, dolls…) and print them out as a visual tool for her to look at to choose from. Now she is all about reading and writing, so all we do is simply make a long list of ideas that are there for her to choose from. This is a tool for her to refer to when she wants to engage in an activity but is unsure of what it is that she feels like doing. It takes some of the challenge away from coming up with ideas.

This idea can even be incorporated into your routines too “Choose something from your choice board”.

Use visuals

Visuals really are a sanity saver for children on the spectrum! Well they have been for us anyway. Anything that my daughter can look at that helps her to know what to expect or what is coming next is so comforting for her.

The great news is they can be used in so many different ways, this is how we have used them during the holidays.

-A holiday calendar. This can be as basic or detailed as you like, At the moment my daughter simply likes to cross days off so she knows where she is at (what week of the holidays) but when she was younger she needed things to be a lot more detailed.

-Routine visual guides. Using photos and pictures to show what to expect for the day or week can be a great way to prepare for any upcoming outings. Whenever I have incorporated a visual guide, I always add a picture of a house to symbolise home time/down time. I could see it was reassuring to her knowing that there were a lot of times that we would be just at home too.

Be flexible

Probably one of the most important things you can do in preparation for the holidays is to set realistic expectations. To make peace with the fact that it isn’t all going to go to plan some of the time (perhaps a lot of the time) and that’s ok. Simply putting some of the above strategies in place and trying to set your child up for success will make you feel more at ease and able to handle what ever is thrown at you.

-Let your expectations manage your child’s abilities. You know what they are and aren’t capable of. Perhaps it means understanding that it may be better to skip that beach date, or make alternative arrangement, or even deciding to give it a go but being prepared that it might not go to plan. If it doesn’t its fine, but if you have realistic expectations and it doesn’t go to plan, it won’t seem like such a failed attempt.

-Know your child’s signs of stress. Do ‘the things’ but prepare them beforehand and be aware of when it gets too much. If it means you leave places earlier then so be it. Its much better to leave on a more positive note than not being aware of when things are getting too much and leaving with an over stimulated child who has reached their limits and on the verge of an intense meltdown.

-Have a ‘bag of tricks’, an ‘autism toolbox’, an ‘emergency sack’…whatever you call it, load it with all the things. Noise cancelling headphones, sensory toys, crunchy foods, bubbles, chewing gum anything that you know brings calmness to your child have it ready to go.

-Have a plan B. If chances are outings or events have a high chance of not going to plan have a back up plan. It may be that you need to leave earlier so organise with a friend to see if they can bring your other children home.

Having children is a gig like no other. Sometimes you nail it and other times you feel like you actually have no idea what you are doing, once you insert any extra challenges you pretty much need to start wearing a cape. So be gentle with yourself and make sure you try to take some time during the school holidays to also focus on yourself. By putting little plans and strategies in place, setting realistic expectations and welcoming the holidays with a positive mindset you have already achieved a safe and happy school holiday start for your child.