A young boy playing Uno with his parents on a glass table.
17 Nov

The School Holiday Survival Guide

They approach quicker and last longer than we might like, so getting prepared for the school holidays sooner rather than later is not only helpful for parents, but for the whole family. This is particularly the case for autism families, where changes to routine and end-of-year events can be more stressful and exhausting.

In this post, we’ll share some tips for not just surviving but enjoying the school holidays as an autism family. We’ll share how you prioritise your health and wellbeing while enjoying some fun activities that are autism-friendly:

  • Keep a routine
  • Consider therapies
  • Monitor time online
  • Schedule some fun activities
  • Leave room for rest and relaxation

Keep a routine

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about school holidays is the sudden absence of the routines that have guided us throughout the entire year. Not only is the absence of school routines challenging, but therapies, extracurricular activities and other events fall away, too. This change in routine can be difficult for autistic people to adjust to, which can sometimes impact other members of the family.

It can be helpful to keep some form of routine during the holiday period, even if it’s just for your autistic child or young person to follow. Whether they're very detailed or more fluid, routines can alleviate a lot of anxiety during periods of change. In fact, they can be particularly beneficial when it comes to keeping up self-care, from sleep to personal hygiene.

Here are some ways you can create a routine that works for your child or young person:

Communicate early

Talk to your child or young person about the school holidays weeks in advance. Explain that school and other activities won’t occur during this period if they aren’t already aware. Inform them of any activities that they’ll be doing instead and ask them how they would like to spend their time. By providing your child or young person with choices, they’ll feel included in the decision-making and be more likely to engage with you.

Use resources

Use resources such as visual schedules, social stories or reminders of routines and changes that will resonate with your child. Display these in an area the child can access easily, such as in their room or in a central part of the house. Explain these reminders and what they indicate to your child to support them in adjusting to change.

Don't forget sleep!

Try to ensure your autistic child or young person sticks to the same or similar bedtimes each night. With many children on the autism spectrum experiencing sleeping issues, even the most minor of disruptions to their sleep schedule can be very off-putting. A solid sleep schedule will also really help in the week or two before school starts back!

Consider therapies

Therapies are often an important part of an autistic child or young person’s week. Many practices and centres shut down over the end-of-year period, which after a busy year, can be a nice break for autistic individuals and their families. Each practice, centre or business will shut down for different periods of time (and some might not shut at all), so check in with your provider if they haven’t notified you about this already.

Although a break from therapies can be nice during the holiday break, many families of course have concerns about regression in their child’s learning and development. If this is a concern of yours, speak to your child’s therapy team to hear their perspectives and work together on a plan to address these concerns over the holiday break.  

Keeping up activities and exercises from therapy you would usually do at home (e.g., speech therapy homework, occupational therapy exercises) can be a good approach. You might not do them as regularly or intensely as you normally would, but even just a few minutes each day can help your child maintain the skills and behaviours they’ve worked so hard on achieving throughout the year.

This shut-down period can also be a great time to re-assess if a certain therapy or service is still helping your child and if you’ll continue with this therapy in the new year. Sometimes, a type of therapy might not be meeting your expectations, or what the therapy service provides is no longer suitable or necessary for your child. If it’s the former, organise a conversation with the service provider to better understand their approach to progress and success. If you still feel confused or concerned after this discussion, it might be a sign to consider different options in the holiday break.

A note on crisis support in the holiday period

Many autistic people and their families experience mental health challenges, which can sometimes be exacerbated by the stress of end-of-year events or the holiday season. Some mental health, respite and other services may not be operating at the end of the year, particularly around public holidays such as Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. It’s a good idea to reach out to services that you have a relationship with and create a plan of action in the event that you need these services but cannot access them. This could be using alternative services during the holidays or taking another approach that will ensure the safety and wellbeing of your entire family.

The following helplines and services will remain accessible 24/7 throughout the holiday period:

Monitor time online

In this extended holiday break, it’s very common for children and adults alike to be spending more time on our various devices. Whether it’s watching their favourite shows on repeat or playing their favourite games, many people on the autism spectrum enjoy spending time on digital devices and in digital worlds. Gaming and interacting with people online can have various benefits for people with autism, including:

  • Developing creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Navigating social interaction from a familiar place and without the challenges of face-to-face communication (e.g., eye contact)
  • Forming and maintaining friendships with like-minded people

Unfortunately, people with autism can also experience the negative effects of time online more intensely, such as:

Like anything, time spent online requires moderation. In fact, researchers recommend limiting video gameplay to a maximum of two hours per day, especially for autistic children. Here are some ways that you can encourage healthy online habits in your family, particularly for an autistic person:

  • Encourage your child or young person to avoid gaming or using digital devices as soon as they wake up.
  • Move digital devices, computers or consoles out of bedrooms.
  • Ensure your child or young person takes regular breaks from time spent online where they stand up and move away from their device/s. They could use this break to spend a few minutes outside or grab some water or a snack.
  • Try to have one day a week where each member of the family spends as little time on their devices as possible. This could be the same day for the entire family or split up over different days depending on individual routines.

Find some fun activities

Although they may be a bit harder to find, there area range of school holiday programs and activities that are autism-specific or inclusive of neurodivergent people. This could range from anything from supervised outings and day programs to programs held over several days or camps away from home. These programs can be very structured or more flexible depending on the strengths and support needs of participants.

If your child or young person is an NDIS participant, they might be able to use their funding for these programs, camps or other activities during the school holidays. Consult your plan or get in touch with your plan manager to find out how you can maximise your child’s plan during the holiday period. Keep in mind that spots in these programs often fill up quickly, so enquiring and booking around this time of year is important for securing your place.

Some children or young people might like to attend autism or sensory-friendly events available to the public. Here are some locations that often offer sensory-friendly activities in the school holidays:

  • Museums
  • Exhibitions
  • Stores (e.g., Lego store)
  • Movie theatres

Often, schools run vacation care or holiday programs in the weeks leading up to Term 1 of the new school year. These programs might help your child maintain a routine and prepare them for the transition back to school. And if they already attend before and/or after school care during the school term, staff will already be aware of their interests, strengths and support needs.

Alternatively, there are always activities you can enjoy from the comfort of your own home or local area – there’s no better opportunity to spend time as a family than the school holiday period. Here are some activities that are popular among many autism families:

Leave room for rest and relaxation

Although it can be tempting to fill every hour of every day with exciting activities for the whole family, don’t forget to leave time to rest! Autistic people and their parents, carers and families are more susceptible to burnout and take longer to recover from it physically and mentally. It’s important to schedule time for rest, relaxation and recovery from particularly busy days, not only for an autistic person, but for your entire family.

For further information and support during the school holiday period, you can check out the following articles:

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