Reflections on Autism, Parenting, and How to Maximize Joy on Vacation

It is Autism Awareness month around the globe this month, and I thought it would be fitting to squeeze in a related blog post today. At this point in our journey with neurodiversity, things feel pretty normal at our house. We have a school schedule, consistent snack, screen time (Minecraft, duh!), homework, and play. The biggest challenges we face are when our routine is thrown out of whack. 

As a sidenote of encouragement to parents and children with new diagnoses, overall things have become easier for all of us as the years go by. We understand our son's needs. And Bryce is maturing in his ability to communicate what gives him anxiety (for example last week he told me a painting in our bathroom gave him shivers..I immediately took it out and threw it in the closet!) We know he enjoys chain restaurant food for its predictable texture, and he even has a favorite chain sit-down restaurant: Chili's, because they have game players on the table.

Okay, so back to the topic on hand. It is Spring Break season around here, and a lot of families are going to the beach, lake, or Disney World. Below I'm sharing a few things we've learned over our last few vacations as a family that could lessen your child's anxiety (a common trait for children with autism) and help everyone have an enjoyable time!

1. Show a Plan (Pictures, maps, schedule)

A few years ago we went to Wisconsin for a long weekend. We told our two kids we were going to a cabin, and when we arrived the interior planks were vertical. A child with neurotypical processing could probably quickly adapt to the change in mental picture, but for Bryce it was devastating that we were not in a traditional log cabin with horizontal planks. 

Ever since, a week or so before the trip, I sit down with him and show him on the map: how far we are going, how many sleeps, how close it is to the beach, mountains, ect., and show him photographs on the vacation rental website. I try to answer any questions he has about the trip and give him as much structure as I can predict (without over-promising.) Along the way we let him look at our google maps to see process in the journey.

Update (2017): We went to Legoland + Epcot this past Spring Break. A week before the trip I sat down with both of our kids and and watched several videos about the parks and their rides. It definitely helped ease their anxiety.

2. Keep Some Things Familiar

Vacations are designed to be relaxing, but for children with high anxiety, adhd, or autism...vacations can be really unsettling. New environments, smells, sounds, and lack of structure is hard on a lot of kids! Adding familiar foods and things from home can be really comforting to them.

When packing for a trip, I always bring his blankie (which is incredibly personal and special to him) and a pillow from his bed. Last vacation to the beach I brought a lot of his snacks, but after a few meals at restaurants we saw he was barely touching his food. I'm talking a bite or two of his chicken finger. So we ran to the closest grocery store and bought yogurt, lunchables (his go-to comfort food), and his favorite milk.

3. Find Play the Whole Family Can Enjoy

Our son Bryce LOVES the sand. Whether we are at the ocean or lake he will dig in it for hours. It is relaxing for him and it gives great sensory input. I also think he likes it because he can be a structural engineer: planning and directing paths for new water systems.... As a family we all enjoy the beach so its a win for all of us.

Our son also really enjoys places with maps. We visited a fort and he made sure we visited every inch of what was on the map. I am guessing it is in part because it is a concrete experience, somewhat predictable, historical, and visual. So to be sure next time we go on vacation we will pick some places with maps!

4. Grace for Reboots

If your child has meltdowns from time to time at home, he or she will likely have them on vacation too. When our little guy is struggling, we try to get him to eat a snack (because low-blood sugar can be a trigger), and we often let him have a reboot time. That might mean 10 minutes playing on our phones, going outside while waiting for food at a restaurant, swinging at a park, or getting to hold his blankie. If we are near the condo rental taking him inside for some quiet space helps too. If we are going to somewhere that might be loud like a movie theater, we bring noise canceling headphones for him.

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5. Don't Loose Sleep Over What Others Think

This is coming from me, a recovering people pleaser, and I can say without a doubt that the people looking at you at the park or restaurant shouldn't impact your day. Some people will be nice, others will be ignorant. Don't loose sleep over it. Meltdowns don't have to ruin the day (and they shouldn't!). Work through the experience, show grace to your little one, and yourself. Take a deep breath, put your feet in the sand, and enjoy the sunset.

Our family vacation in Charleston SC, Spring Break 2015

Our family vacation in Charleston SC, Spring Break 2015

6 Favorite Family Articles

6 favorite family and parenting articles | tag&tibby

What I like the most about blog writing is that I get to write a range of content. On this site I share a little of DIYs, a little recipes, and little of our life.

I like to write about our family from time to time. I don't have it all figured out (if anything this past year I figured out the importance of not spreading myself too thin). But from time to time I like to write about parenting and how that looks in our home. Our style is a little different. Our kids sometimes need social breaks, reward incentives, and clear communication as part of having autism in our home. We are a little more chill about things and we intentionally weigh out the impact of trips and new activities and how that will impact our family.

Today I want to share some favorite family and parenting related posts from the past year! (Click the header link for the full post.)

1. Why You Should Do a DIY Project with Your Kids! 

why you should try a DIY project with your kids!
reflecting on time as a SAHM
celebrating the beauty in autism
a sensory friendly playroom makeover
engaging children in home design projects
ways to encourage screen free time

Celebrating the Beauty in Autism

I am a mom to a child with high functioning autism. His diagnosis is not new to us: we have known since he was 4. Last year I wrote a little update when he was 7. And I also recommended a few books (in case you are looking for good info on autism).

At the moment within the autism community articles written by parents of an autistic child are looked down upon. This is in part because some parents have written negative articles. And it is also because many autistic adults and young adults have found their voice through the internet and that is a beautiful thing. I hope our child will do that too someday if he so chooses.

In the meantime I would like to reflect a little joy in this corner of the web. We went to an apple orchard a few weeks ago, and to be honest I wasn't sure how it would go. Our son sometimes builds expectations and routes we should take. But this day he was calm and it was a huge surprise to find a bouncy trampoline when we arrived.

Our two kids were in heaven. It was perfect. Children on the spectrum often have a high need for sensory input, and that can looks different for each child. For our guy he tends to love heavy blankets, snuggling (on his terms), spinning and rolling. On a related note this year we are doing gymnastics and it is going really well so far. He gets to jump and push and pull and climb with abandon. And it isn't a competition directly against anyone else.

So today I am just celebrating those beautiful smiles. Not that life is perfect or predictable, but that God has blessed us richly with our two kids: one of whom has autism.

My Time as a SAHM

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I was a stay at home mom to our two kids for several years. It was a sacrifice for my husband and I: we shared 1 car, a lot of our date nights were takeout + Netflix (okay, that is still true!), and we purchased our furniture used or on clearance. Activities generally cost money, so we spent a lot of time together. I have good memories of watching our kids pretend near the fireplace on winter evenings in our Minnesota home. One income required creative thinking, and good communication on my husband and I's part with helping one another.

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As our children grew so did my desire to be involved with entrepreneurship and creative outlets. I wanted to be there for our kids, but I also desired work. I found myself praying specifically for opportunities. In short: my life stage changed. 

Over the past few years we have seen just how good school is for our son. His meltdowns have decreased as his structure has increased. Summers at home continue to be hard. Now that I am officially working from home it is my hope that he can go to a safe part-time summer camp next summer. His and anxiety seems to decrease when he has a definitive plan.

In this rambling blog post, I am saying not to limit your choices. God directs hearts, and life stages are truly that. Each family is unique. If you are a mother you may be called to stay home or you may be called to work. Be aligned with your spouse, know your kids, and if you are a Christian spend time in prayer. 

There is no perfect solution. No "my kids will come out perfectly if i do XYZ" But I do believe as parents we have great influence over our children. We have the opportunity to discuss life and choices and friends and schoolwork on a daily basis. That doesn't mean we need to be spend 24 hours a day with them, but we do need to be intentional. And that is something I am still working on. Whatever you choose, enjoy the little moments and capture them in your heart. Seasons change and memories are precious.