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Holiday Parenting Hints
Pictured, Debs with Bobby and Alec when they were five and we were just starting up AuKids.
THIS is the fifiteenth summer I will have spent with my twins Bobby and Alec. Bobby is verbal and attends a mainstream school. His main difficulties are caused by the rigidity aspect of autism, which causes stress when changes come about. Alec is non-verbal and attends a special school. He finds it hard to occupy himself and gets a bit 'stir crazy' when out of routine. One of mine is a computer whizz, the other likes playing outdoors.
By Debby Elley, co-founder of AuKids magazine and author of 15 Things They Forgot to Tell You About Autism.
1. PREPARE YOUR MENTAL STATE
Mentally, don’t start by thinking the word holiday means ‘rest and relaxation’.
If you start thinking that holidays mean rest and relaxation, after two weeks you’ll start to wonder when the rest and relaxation is coming. After four weeks you’ll wonder where the rest and relaxation went and after six weeks you’ll be in a hugely resentful state for having experienced approximately zero hours of ‘rest and relaxation’.
Reframe your expectations. August is probably the hardest month of the year as far as us parents of autistic children are concerned. They are out of routine, so are you - you'll get some lovely moments but it's tiring too!
So plan a break for yourself - even if it's just an evening break - for after the holidays. If you’re a mum, I suggest getting yourself an evening out when the holidays are over. If you are a dad, do the same! If you can't go together, then go with friends. The point is, give yourself a reward of some sort. Or, if you fancy, that's exactly why we've planned an 80s night - www.aukids80snight.evenbrite.co.uk
2. CATCH THEM DOING IT RIGHT
When they are playing nicely with siblings, or entertaining themselves, or focusing on something nicely, or going to the supermarket without a fuss..take some time to quietly tell them how very proud you are of what they have done. Tell them specifically what made you most proud and happy. Do this and your child will want to repeat it.
The thing is, there will be tough days. But you don't want your relationship in the holidays to only be about them hearing 'No' or being told off. If they get to feel great about themselves for behaving well, it's something they can build on. There's nothing in the word 'No' that tells an autistic child what they should be doing instead. Once they demonstrate what brilliant behaviour is and you point it out, it makes it far easier for them to learn.
Apart from encouraging them to do the right thing, this works powerful magic on you, too. It means that you 'compute' and store the good days, not just the difficult ones, which tend to loom larger.
3. BUY AN EXCITING HOLIDAY TOY
Okay, here’s the deal. We spend most of the year depriving our autistic children of new toys so that we can bombard them with overload at Christmas time when we can least afford it and they can least appreciate it.
I’ve learnt to buy them less at Christmas and spend some of that money on an exciting toy or two especially for the holidays. It will keep them occupied for at least 24 hours before it breaks. One successful addition was to buy a couple of exciting pieces for the train set just before the holidays.
4. DON’T ‘OVER’ PLAN
I plan a holiday timetable, with visuals for my non-verbal son Alec, so that we all know what we are doing. I used to panic if every day wasn’t filled. These days, I realise that rather a lot of holiday opportunities tend to come up at last minute. So plan a few key things during the week, and keep some days spare for wiggle room.
5. HALF DAYS
It took me a number of years to realise that days out were actually really hard work, as travel and lunch planning was involved. I then started to realise that mornings were okay for me; I’d start to go batty when the kids started getting stir crazy at about 2pm. So I’d focus instead on afternoon trips to keep them busy from 2pm till tea time. This was less planning, gave them the morning to do their own thing instead of rushing, and gave us all a focus for the day. It also kept them in their own routine at lunch, so they were in a more 'optimum' state for going out.
6. FOCUS ON THE PROCESS
Those of you who have heard my recent talks will know that I came late to the party when it came to focusing on the process rather than the outcome. When making things, I'd feel a failure if my kids hadn't produced something. It was my Mary Poppins mode.
I learnt instead to focus on exploration, experience, bonding and communication. One of my most successful afternoons with Alec was spent letting him smother the bathroom tiles with shaving foam, sitting in the bath with bath crayons in the afternoon! He had a lovely time with contained messy play! These days we also have a colour changing shower head which is fab (you can buy them separately). Play with kinetic sand without worrying about what you’re building. Blow paper balls around a washing up bowl with straws. Doesn’t have to be a point to it, as long as it’s fun. To avoid lots of mess on the table, buy a cheap shower curtain for about £1 and put paints or sand on top of it.
7. HAVE A LITTLE PIT STOP
Build in one afternoon when you're not 'doing something'. You need a breather. Plan it in. When you get this rest, don’t ‘catch up’ with the washing or housework. Use it as a proper rest. People focus on a two week holiday as the only source of 'rest and relaxation'. Actually, half an hour's quality time spent with a magazine, book, in the bath or with a friend can be just as good for the soul, if booked in on a regular basis!
8. VISUAL CHOICES
For days at home, create a little choice board of activities, so that they get used to planning their free time. This is better than ‘Well what do you want to do now? Sigh!’
9. AUTISM FRIENDLY EYES!
Keep an eye out for autism friendly cinema, the charity Dimensions teams up with cinemas to run more of these during the school hols.
10. JUST BE WITH THEM
You don’t have to be productive to enjoy spending time together. Some of my most precious moments were just watching Alec in the sandpit and supplying the words for what he was doing. Then eventually he asked me to join in. I found that if he was playing on his own in the sand, he'd be there a lot longer if I was observing him and keeping him company. So don't jump to put the washing in the machine the minute they're occupied. See it as a rest, have a cup of tea, and just be with them. This makes them less likely to be demanding for your attention at other times. It's good for their self-esteem to have you with them, even if you're not talking. I used to find this hard because Alec was non-verbal. Then after a while I realised he was simply content I was there.
11. EXCITING ADVENTURES - REALLY?
It’s kind of hard when the world is talking about ‘exciting’ things to do in the holidays. But you’ve got to ask yourself – is the big adventure to stop you getting bored, or them? Many autistic kids are happy with simple pleasures and a quiet walk without loads of other families can be just as good for them as a busy, stressful day queueing.
Make sure that any big days out are built into a week in which you get some sort of down time either side - that is good for you as well as them. Don't under-estimate how overloading time out in a busy place can be for an autistic child, even if they enjoy it.
12. LEAVE THE TIDYING
It will wait, and anyway they’ll trash the house pretty much as soon as you’ve done it!
13. INDULGE YOURSELF BY CUTTING CORNERS
When holidays were on and my kids were younger, I’d be prepared to spend extra money to make that six weeks a bit easier for myself. This meant sometimes paying for ironing to be done (not always affordable but if it is, do it) and ordering online shopping rather than dragging two autistic kids around the supermarket. Plus, cooking easier meals. Basically, those six weeks need to be made easier for you in whatever shape or form that takes. Don't feel guilty, that's part of you protecting your mental health.
14. BUILD IN PLAN B
Before you plan a day out, consider your current stress levels. Really tune into them and make the most of the days when you are less tired. Also, always have a plan B for if things don’t turn out the way you are expecting them to, and tell your kids about that plan B (whether in words or pictures). This way, Plan B becomes part of the main plan, and isn’t a shock if it happens.
For your own satisfaction and theirs, make one little self-care target for during the holidays that you can work on now that you’ve got a bit of extra time. Reward them with points towards something they’d like. This adds to the routine and can give a bit of structure.
16. BACK INTO THE ROUTINE
A week before school starts, start getting the uniform visible in the house and get them up a bit earlier. Ease them into the new term.
I hope this helps - good luck! Share any good ideas with AuKids on Facebook, too!
More summer help? Check out our archive for summer features. You'll need your AuKids username and password to access past features.
Like this article? You'll love my book. Buy 15 Things They Forgot to Tell You About Autism by Debby Elley at www.jkp.com