Autism and Holiday Breaks: Designing a Vacation Activity Schedule

Favorite Chinese Train

Extended breaks from a routine can be refreshing and rejuvenating for many of us. That being the case, it is often comforting to fall back into your own pattern of daily life. Some of those affected by autism, though, have a very tough time adjusting to changes in their schedules and their surroundings. Therefore, a typically reinforcing vacation can spark numerous behavioral challenges and may leave you wondering what happened!

While it isn’t possible to recreate an individual’s school or daily schedule during holiday breaks and longer school absences, it is possible to help add a little more structure. Rigidity, on your part, is not the goal here (it is a vacation after all!) but most individuals with moderate to severe autism will often choose to follow a short activity schedule when given the choice. A short schedule such as this will most likely resemble what he/she is using at school; and therefore ease their anxiety or frustration. Unlike a school activity schedule, your vacation schedule can be composed of mainly fun or relaxing ‘activities’ with a few educational or chore associated items added as you see fit. An example of a vacation activity schedule could look like this:


Watch TV

Play Outside



Clean-up Room

Empty Laundry

Practice Piano

12:00 Lunch

Notice that there are choices when it comes to leisure and chore/educational activities. Also, sometimes there aren’t any choices, such as at Lunch Time. Making sure that this schedule is followed to a tee is not the goal here. It will add some structure to their day and (very importantly) give you the ability to add unsuspected activities like Going to Grandmother’s House. These unplanned events have the potential of intensifying a routine-break anxiety flare-up. When these trips/events are added to the vacation activity schedule in advance, it can help prepare the individual for this change in their routine.

Although it is a good goal to help individuals with ASD become more flexible when it comes to following (and not following) routines, these vacation schedules can really help in the mean time. Many of us (myself included) use a written or digital system to schedule our days, weeks or months. The digital era now provides any number of devices to help in this area, from PDA’s to smart-phones, laptops, etc. My eyes were opened to this issue when I first began teaching students with autism. After a relatively short month and a half of summer vacation, I was preparing myself for a somewhat challenging week of teaching. After all, my students most likely haven’t had many demands placed on them throughout the summer and now I would be asking them to complete any number of challenging activities. To my total surprise, most of my students seemed to enjoy the fact that they could now continue their school routines and behavior challenges were low! Again, it is important to add periodic changes to routines that will help create more flexibility. Remember to have fun and allow your son/daughter the ability to follow a routine that will help them acclimate.

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