Packing as a “Teachable Moment”
I regret I didn’t always see vacation packing as a “teachable moment” for my autistic kids.
I was in full charge of packing all of their items they would need for our trips. I packed their clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other essentials while I let them choose a couple of their favorite items to bring along.
Eventually I let them pack their own bags. Only problem…I would sift through their luggage and start throwing out unnecessary items. I raided their dresser drawers to find the more important stuff they didn’t include. Sometimes the result was frustration, anger and even a meltdown—by everyone—because they didn’t “pack right” the first time and I was taking out their beloved possessions.
On one occasion I let my daughter pack her own things without any preliminary checking before the trip. Upon arrival of our destination I discovered she was missing some very important essentials (like enough underwear and socks). She had also over-packed non-essential items. She packed 15 stuffed animals in one big bag and brought along another bag stuffed with loose-leaf papers. I understood her need for comfort, but no wonder we could barely get everything in our trunk!
I was fully aware then that packing is a learning process that takes time to learn. Looking back, though, I wish I could have done things very differently.
Not truly helping them…
By packing for them, I didn’t help them. I enabled them. I lost out on the opportunity to use packing as a “teachable moment” to help foster self-help skills.
I was also sending them very mixed messages: I told them to pack their own things…believing I was empowering them to be self-sufficient. And then, I turned around to “undo” their efforts by taking things out or adding them in…not empowering at all!
I lost out on a very BIG “teachable moment”.
I was not teaching them in a positive, hands-on way HOW to pack.
Sometimes I think we as parents lose sight of how our “means” of interacting with our autistic children might actually be more important than the end-goals. Every little “teachable moment” has the capacity to help our child develop important life skills.
Packing for any trip is indeed a very important “teachable moment” for autistic children. It’s not just arriving at the destination that matters…it’s the act of preparing for it that can set up the attitude for the entire vacation.
In addition, there is so much potential skills-building in the act of packing, especially those critical executive functioning skills needed for a self-sufficient, happy life.
Don’t make the same mistakes I made!
If I had to “do it all over again”, I would teach my kids not only how to prepare for a good travel experience but important skills learned in the process of packing.
Here are 5 tips to make packing a “teachable moment”:
1. Have your autistic child create his/her own packing list…with your guidance.
Once your destination and date of visit has been decided, figure out—with your child—what you need to take. Use apps, destination websites, and videos for help. Have him/her write down, type out, point to, or verbally record two (2) lists of items for (1) larger suitcase; and (2) a personal travel bag. Help your child figure out what is necessary based on certain conditions:
- Are you going to the beach or a theme park? Will you visit the desert or mountains?
- What will the weather be like? Will you be visiting during the summer or winter months?
- What are activities you plan to do there?
- How long will you be gone from home? How will you be traveling?
- What sensory, comfort, or interest-based items would your child like to bring along in a personal bag while traveling to the destination?
RECOMMEND: Download important planning apps like The Weather Channel, Waze, and those associated with your destination (like those for the cruise lines and Disney parks). Try to encourage your child do as much of his/her own research and planning as possible.
LEARNED SKILLS: Research and problem-solving; dressing appropriately for weather and seasons; self-advocacy and social-communication of personal needs and wants.
2. Create a finalized “picture list” of the items in each bag…if necessary.
Have your child (or you, if necessary) take pictures of the items on the lists. Using a Word document, put those pictures in one column and then include space to check off the items packed in another column. Consider laminating this picture list for future travel; use a dry-erase marker for checking off packed items.
RECOMMEND: Provide help only if necessary; use this process as a “teachable moment”.
LEARNED SKILLS: Technical skills with camera and computer (if he/she can’t use these then have your child observe the process); translating written/audio to a visual element to self-advocate; organizational skills and self-confidence.
3. Have your autistic child to pack his/her own bags…with supervision.
Using the packing list your child created, have him or her start gathering the necessary items together. Pack one larger suitcase for clothes (stored in the trunk or cargo hold) and the other for personal use while traveling in the car or plane (preferably a book-bag). They must be light enough for your child to carry; otherwise, just have him/her carry at least a personal travel bag. Do a final check with your child: make sure that what they are putting in those bags are “reasonable items” for travel.
RECOMMEND: Use a sturdy book-bag comfortable on the shoulders and a lightweight rolling suitcase to pull behind. Start packing at least a few days before the trip, in case anything you need or want is missing.
LEARNED SKILLS: Accountability and responsibility for taking care of personal items during travel and on vacation; organization; understand the process of making realistic choices for travel.
4. Have your child transport his/her own bags while traveling…with some reminders.
Being responsible for your own possessions at all times is actually not an easy skill for kids to learn. Many adults can barely do it! Some autistic kids have a harder time keeping track of everything than others. My older son often loses things, so we have him “practice” carrying around a bag with non-expensive/non-critical items. You may need to gently remind your child (maybe quite often) not to forget his/her bags during transport. That includes carrying a day-bag into a theme park.
RECOMMEND: Consider putting a tracker device (like Tile) on your child’s personal bag and suitcase, if necessary. If they want to take their own money and phone everywhere, consider having them wear a fanny-pack or something similar that won’t easily be lost.
LEARNED SKILLS: Executive functioning and self-help skills; care-taking and responsibility for personal belongings; pride of ownership.
5. Have your autistic child re-pack his/her own bags during and after the trip.
It’s not enough just to pack your bag before you leave for your trip. Encourage your child to be accountable for his/her own possessions during the entire trip. For example:
- Designate a special place in your resort room to put their own things (i.e. their own drawer, own hanger in the closet, etc.)
- Help them pack a day bag when you do outings (i.e. swim/beach items; sensory kit; music, books or games, phone, etc.).
- Take the “pictures lists” with you while you travel. Use this as a visual checklist for all items when leaving your destination. This will be especially important if you have planned several hotel-stays during your trip.
RECOMMEND: Consider creating a “picture list” of items for different planned activities.
LEARNED SKILLS: Organization; self-help skills; care-taking and responsibility for personal belongings; independence and self-confidence.
Packing for a “lifetime”
It’s hard—especially for us moms—to take a step back and let our kids figure things out for themselves. Often, we intervene for the wrong reasons: to stay on schedule, to avoid a meltdown, because it makes us feel good to help…
But they don’t learn when we do everything for them. This is not leading them toward self-empowerment.
Instead of doing things FOR them, we can GUIDE them using a structured framework. If we really want to empower our autistic kids to become self-reliant, self-sufficient, and self-advocates, we as parents need to “do less” and “guide more”.
Despite the challenges of autism, travel can actually be a therapeutic growth experience. By using the process of packing as a “teachable moment”, your child will reap the benefits of gaining valuable life skills long after your trip is over.
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