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Ideas and suggestions for holidays

Family Holiday Hints For Special Needs Children

Families who have children with learning disabilities may find planning a family holiday more complex and stressful than usual, and are unlikely to find their vacation anywhere near the relaxing or carefree experience that many others do – they often more closely resemble complicated logistical operations filled with a minefield of issues to address the child’s complex needs.

Routine Changing

A lot of people delight in a break from the usual routine but this can be very frightening and confusing for those with autism or learning disabilities. The lack of a predictable and structured daily schedule causes havoc with their equilibrium, resulting in stress and anguish for all.

The trick is to prepare a routine for the family holiday, even if it is just a basic structure like this:

  • Have a washwinter-sun.jpg
  • Get dressed
  • Have breakfast
  • Explore town
  • Have lunch
  • Play on the beach
  • Eat dinner
  • Bath and brush teeth
  • Read a story or watch a DVD
  • Bedtime

Give your child plenty of notice of what is going to happen the next day. Try to show photographs or videos of the places you are planning to visit. Minimising the surprises will go a long way towards ensuring that your family holiday runs smoothly.

Sensory Overstimulation

Sensory problems often come hand in hand with other learning disabilities, giving excessive sensitivity to sights, sounds and other sensations and making loud noises, new smells, bright lights or crowded locations very distressing. Do your research on your family holiday destination before you go so that you’re aware of the available “quiet zones” and the sensory hazards like echoing restaurants or dazzling funfairs. Another good trick is to keep a small day bag with some sensory objects in it like crackly paper, scented bubbles, shiny things or chewy snacks. These items can be invaluable in providing a helpful distraction of focus if the situation becomes difficult.

Strange New Things

While the majority of us relish seeing new sights, experimenting with different foods and trying new activities this is extremely uncomfortable for many people with autism or learning disabilities, who draw comfort from familiarity and may exhibit challenging behaviour if the familiar is taken away.

As with the routine planning, the key here is preparation. Choose your family holiday destination as far in advance as possible and then start preparing your child as much as you can in order to reduce the fear of the unknown. Make use of photos, videos and holiday brochures to give your child a level of familiarity with their new environment. Consider visiting the airport or train station a few times before you’re due to travel, and talk them through the boarding and other processes that will occur so this is not as new and shocking when it really happens.

Brothers and Sisters

Even a comparatively standard family holiday will involve a great deal of compromise and juggling needs and desires so nobody feels left out. If you have a child with special needs it is all too easy for them to take priority which can leave siblings feeling resentful, causing additional behavioural problems for the trip.

Ensure you make time for the activities the entire family wants to do, even if it is only an hour or so, so that everyone feels like they have really had a holiday. Don’t be tempted to treat siblings, even if they are older children, as carers! It is often tempting to rely on them more when you’re away from home but they need a holiday as much as you do – try spreading the care between yourself and your partner so nobody feels over-burdened.

Losing A Child

This is every parent’s nightmare, and becomes an even bigger one for children with learning disabilities. Practice and roleplay with your child before your family holiday begins – ensure they know how to show their identification and what to say to people, and make sure they can correctly identify appropriate “safe” people in your destination such as life guards, security, police, hotel staff etc. For extra peace of mind write down your contact details on a wristband or label and attach to your child’s clothing. You can also get special Autism Alert cards and bracelets from the National Autistic Society which can be invaluable when abroad in case the worst should happen.

For a wide range of family holiday ideas, including plenty of brochures which can be ideal for helping to prepare a child with autism or a learning disability for their trip, visit today and order your free family holiday brochures.


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