Updated: Dec 4, 2019
The Spring Break season is upon us and that means taking a break from school and spending time with family and friends. It also often means traveling, late bedtimes, and likely more sugar for our children. But for differently-wired children, those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), ADHD, and anxiety, it also means different schedules, unknown routines, and often more dysregulation. I often work with families to create vacation routines that differ from home and school routines, but are consistent enough to keep children regulated while experiencing new things during their travels. This works well for many, until families come home.
The Vacation-Mode Mind Shift
Growing up in North Carolina afforded me the gift of many weekend trips. We could travel to the beach or the mountains for just two nights and not miss any school. This, of course, left little time to shift gears when returning home on Sunday evening. I recall always feeling sad when leaving the beach. My sadness usually lasted the span of the car trip. That’s all I needed to shift from vacation mode to school-week mode. It also helped that the next weekend trip wasn’t too far away.
What I’m describing is much more difficult for differently-wired children who struggle with transition. Returning from a vacation is the ultimate transition. The small version of this type of transition is when we ask our child to stop playing and come to dinner. The medium-sized version of this is every Sunday night when our children have to shift from weekend mode to school-week mode. But leaving vacation and returning to “the real world” is hard for all of us, especially our children.
So what does this shift look like? In children who can verbalize their emotions, this may involve noticing they are sad and talking through the transition. But for children who are not able to fully process or express their emotions, the post-vacation letdown looks more like a post-vacation meltdown full of irritability, rigidity, emotional sensitivity, or what some parents just describe as their child being "off."
The Power of the Pattern
Most children with ASD think in patterns; it's how they make sense of the world when so much feels unknown and overwhelming. I recently read “Uniquely Human: A different way of seeing autism” by Dr. Barry M. Prizant, who does a phenomenal job explaining how soothing patterns can be for children on the autism spectrum. Dr. Prizant quotes his friend, Michael John Carley, an adult with Asperger's, who explains it this way: "The opposite of anxiety isn't calm, it's trust." When children with ASD do not have a pattern to trust, they become anxious (don’t we all?), which leads to dysregulation.
To help children with ASD, ADHD, and anxiety remain regulated at school, we create and rely on predictable routines. This is why I work with families to create weekend routines to help children trust the plan even when the day is different from a school week. I often talk about these trusted patterns as “schemes.” Children with ASD often develop “schemes” to make sense of the world. This is why one skill may not generalize to another setting or another person. It was learned within that scheme, or pattern, and must be learned again when the variables change.
In the Middle
I recently talked my own child through the post-vacation letdown and it went something like this: Our lives are made up of patterns. We go to school and work during the week and that is our learning time. We are home on the weekends and that is our playing time. When we shift from learning to playing we feel extra excited (think Friday afternoon) and when we shift from playing to learning, we feel extra sad (the Sunday night blues). We are “in the middle” of the playing to learning transition. As my son put it, “it feels weird to be in the middle.” Yes, it does, because we are dysregulated.
The excited version of dysregulated on Friday afternoon doesn’t feel bad, so we usually don’t respond with negative behavior (although sometimes feeling overly excited leads to hyperactivity). On the other hand, the sad version of “the middle” is a total bummer. I’m pretty sure we have all felt mopey on a Sunday night, dreading that work meeting at 8:00 am Monday morning. When returning from vacation, some can just experience “the middle” during a car ride home, but many of our differently-wired kids need much longer to process that strange feeling of being “in the middle.”
How to Help
Take time to transition. My husband and I have long figured out that we need an extra day between vacation and the work week. This day is filled with unpacking, laundry, and grocery shopping. It also helps us shift out of vacation mode and into work-week mode. Differently-wired children may need even more time. Some can process the change in a day with just one night's sleep while others may need the entire weekend.
Create a routine for “the middle.” Schedule the same routine when returning home that you think your child needs. Often this is a hard time for them so plan a favorite activity to look forward to while you’re doing all that grocery shopping and laundry. Perhaps have them spend some time with an extended family member or family friend they love and have missed on vacation. Even just doing the regular weekend routine you would do before any school week helps to “reboot” their system to prepare for the Sunday night transition ahead. Transitioning from vacation to school is too far of a jump, but transitioning from a regular weekend at home to school is much more doable and also more familiar.
Downplay the trip. I know we all want to talk about how wonderful the vacation was when we return home, but this could be a trigger for some children. It might feel unnatural for parents to de-emphasize such a great trip when talking to friends at home, but it can be beneficial to keep the rehashing of awesome events to a minimum, or not at all, until more time has passed. Talking about how fun the trip was just reminds children of how much they miss it and can dysregulate them more when they are already feeling the weirdness of “the middle.”
Go ahead and start talking about the next vacation. This can be very helpful for moving children through the sadness of “the middle” and thinking about the next time for fun. Looking ahead also reminds them that the pattern of learning and playing keeps going.
Explain that our lives are a balance of learning and playing. If life was all learning and work, we would burn out. If we only played, we would not make progress as a society (not to mention we would all run out of money!). This can be hard for children to grasp, but they can often understand the pattern of taking breaks from learning so they can play. The hard part can be convincing them that learning is helpful, too. Pointing out how you needed math to calculate the ride wait times at Disney or using your understanding of history to enjoy those museums can help children see why learning is essential to enjoying their play time. We can’t have one without the other.
When to Travel
Families often know when their children are ready to travel. But, sometimes the strong emotions of the post-vacation letdown are too much for families to manage and they may avoid traveling all together. It just doesn't seem worth it yet. Remember that children are constantly developing. This summer, it may not feel possible to travel, but a year from now may be a different story. Traveling often expands flexibility in anxious children and creates strong emotional memories for them. The sadness of “the middle” can only exist because the excitement of the vacation was so fantastic. Once this balance feels worth it, you know it’s time to plan that vacation.
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