Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

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.

 

From travel tips to destination ideas, I would love to help you plan a memorable getaway!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

Before Going to Walt Disney World with Autism

 

What to do BEFORE going to Walt Disney World

If you are dreaming of a trip to see your family’s favorite Disney characters, there are some things to do before you actually go to Walt Disney World.  In this article you’ll find helpful tips to ensure a good trip with autism!

A Disney Obsession

My kids really enjoy our vacations to Walt Disney World.  No, I mean, they LOVE going to Walt Disney World—as in, OBSESSED!  Having memorized many Disney movie scenes and collected various Disney paraphernalia, they get to live out these films in “real-time”.

Since both of my teens have autism, they perceive time, space and the social realm differently.  They often need more time and explanation to process certain input, especially auditory.

While many parents like to surprise their kids with a grand “Disney vacation reveal” the day before they go, I think my kids would flip out (and not in a good way) if I did this for our first trip. Despite their love of Disney, they need extra supports to thoroughly enjoy their time.

Maybe your family is like mine.

I’ll tell you from personal experience…a little preparation goes a long way to feeling at ease and thoroughly enjoying your vacation at Walt Disney World.

Top 10 things to do BEFORE you go to Walt Disney World

1. Download the Walt Disney World park maps and study them together as a family.

This is our favorite phase of trip planning—dreaming of new attractions and snacks we’d like to try as well as new characters we’d like to meet. When everyone’s input is valued, it creates a sense of personal investment and family bonding in the process.

2. Watch the movies or read books associated with the attractions.

This REALLY helped my daughter: when she was six she climbed my husband like a petrified cat inside the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion ride and refused to go on again that trip.

After watching the movie about the ride, she became invested into the story and the characters. She now wanted to see where it all “happened”, summoning the courage to go back on the Haunted Mansion ride!

3. View website pictures and videos of the resort where you will be staying.

Seeing what the resort has to offer, such as the pool, arcade, dining, room décor, and on-site entertainment (like movie-nights and campfire s’mores) builds excitement and will provide a sense of familiarity when you arrive.

4. Download the MyDisneyExperience App. 

You can show your family all of the Fast Pass+ attractions and meal reservations on your phone before you go and during your trip.

It helps those who are exceptionally time-obsessed (like my son) and keep asking to see what’s next…sort of like a digital visual schedule.

5. If your family members are not used to buses that take guests to the parks, try riding one in your town or watch videos.

Play pretend at home: line up chairs and act out how people behave riding a bus.

If you stay at a Disney resort and taking a bus is out of the question, you can always take your own car to the parks (parking is free for resort guest). Or, you can take an Uber, Lyft or Minnie Van as your own private transportation.

6. Practice for the experience at home.

If nearly a week-long trip seems daunting, try local expeditions first.

Take your family to local festivals, sporting events, theme parks or carnivals. Some young children may need to be “eased into” large crowds for long periods of time to get used to the sensory experience.

Take short staycations to get used to staying in hotels.

How your autistic family members do in these settings will give you a much better sense of what kinds of accommodations are needed at Walt Disney World. Develop appropriate sensory-behavioral plans in the event of a meltdown.

7. Map out quiet places for downtime in the event of sensory overload.

One nice place is the circus tent with tables and couches by Pete’s Silly Sideshow (Fantasyland). Tom Sawyer’s Island might be a nice, quiet place to “unwind” and/or stim to self-regulate.

Consider taking a mid-day breaks from the parks at the resort to swim or nap (even older family members benefit).

Planning to rest for a whole day in the middle of the week is extremely helpful to avoid exhaustion before the vacation is over.

8. Print out your daily itinerary schedule to take with you into the parks.

Put the days and times for Fast Pass attractions, Table Service meals, parades, fireworks, shows, etc. (You can find the anticipated events calendar here.) Be sure to include places to take breaks and the First Aid station (especially helpful if an older adult needs bathroom assistance).

Feel free to add pictures into the form of a visual schedule and laminate it. You can even attach them into a mini-book or key-ring.

9. Make social stories for different aspects of your trip.

Consider making one for each park, the resort, transportation options, dining, buying merchandise, etc. as you feel is needed. These may take some creativity and time to make.

But for some that already rely on these to make it through their daily schedule at home, these will be incredibly beneficial for those who have a hard time with routine interruption in a new place.

10.  Create a sensory packing list.

Start gathering the tools needed not only to prevent sensory overload (i.e. sound-reducing headphones) but also in the event of a meltdown (i.e. food, toy, sensory soother, fidget, etc.).  Brainstorm items that would be good diversions to help with waiting (i.e. electronic games).

Other important items to bring in advance (that many don’t often consider) are autograph books and retractable Sharpie pens. Unbeknownst to me, the trip highlight for my TEENAGERS was meeting the characters and getting their autographs.  I thought they outgrew this, so I didn’t anticipate packing these.

The long lines for meet-n-greets didn’t seem to bother my autistic kids as much as long ride queues with nothing much to see.  Watching other park guests meet and take pictures with their favorite movie characters only fueled their own excitement.

One more bonus tip!

Perhaps one of the most important things you can do before your trip is to review the Walt Disney World policies regarding disability accommodations.  Be sure to download their Planning a Trip to Walt Disney World Resort: A Resource for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

So, there you have it!

With the right planning before your trip, and knowing your child’s sensory needs and accommodations well, you will be on your way to creating long-lasting memories together at the most magical place on earth!

 

I would love to help you plan a magical Disney vacation!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!