Summer vacation can be particularly trying for parents of unique learners. These parents want to make special memories with their children. Their typical learners are excited and can hardly wait for the family vacation that will soon begin. Their unique learner may be completely overwhelmed, and even terrified, by the same experiences.

This time of year brings new experiences that seem exciting but may cause distress to your child. This might look like acting out or misbehaving, but it is typically a reaction that indicates they are overloaded.

Multiply that overload by 10 and you can just picture the meltdown your unique learner may have. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a fun and relaxing summer vacation. In this issue, I give you several strategies to help you calm the chaos that unique learners often experience when there are changes in routine.

So, what can you do to make your vacation special for everyone, and not lose your mind in the process?

Be aware that there is definitely a “too much” threshold for unique learners. Understand that there may be things you have to miss because of this. When you know that an event will be upsetting for your child (and therefore to you), take steps to minimize the discomfort or make different plans. These events are supposed to be fun, not punishment.

The good news is that there are strategies you can use to minimize the internal chaos your unique learner feels when routines are disrupted. Here are five that can help make this a great vacation for all.

Preparing for New Experiences

When entering a new space, such as a theme park or even just a party at a friend’s house, give your unique learner a heads-up about what they can expect in this new space. Before you enter, tell them what they might see and how they should act. Give them something to compare the event to. For example, “This is like when we go to the library and have to use walking feet and quiet voices” or “Waiting for our turn for the water slide is like when we had to wait in line to see Santa. It’s okay to use your talking voice, but we must practice patience while we wait our turn”.

Also, since some children are slow to warm up, try to time your arrival so that you are early to events and parties so your child can adjust while it is relatively calm.

What to Do When Your Child Is Distracted, Unable to Focus, and/or Crabby

While it seems counter-intuitive to introduce movement when what your child seems to need is a nap, this can be the very thing that calms the chaos. These are specific sensory activities that regulate different sensory systems (experiment to see what your child enjoys – this will likely give you a clue as to what will help them the most):

Activities that let them feel gravity are soothing to the emotions:

  • Summersaults
  • rolling down a hill
  • swinging
  • crawling
  • crab walking

(But avoid making it a competition – the focus here is on integrating their sensory system.)

Weight-bearing activities are very calming to the body and organizing to the brain. Try an imaginary game of “marching band” with stomping feet. Heavy chores are very calming to their system – have them hold something heavy to “help” you – their suitcase or the bag from the gift store – obviously tailored to their size and age. You want them to be able to lift it with a little bit of effort. Catching a weighted ball or beanbag is also helpful (see an example of a weighted ball on my website).

When Your Child Is Too Sped Up/Excited Either Mentally or Physically

At home or in the hotel room: Wrap your child in a soft blanket, dim the lights, speak in a low, steady voice and slowly and rhythmically rock him or her. A brushing program can also help. There are special brushes available on my website, but you can use a soft scrub brush (like a nail brush) or a soft make-up brush and lightly move the brush down the arms and legs. Make sure you brush in the direction the hair grows and not against it.

In public: slowly and gently push on the small joints in the fingers, apply pressure along the length of their arms (gentle hug using your hands around their arm); gently “squish” the hands; hug them in a way that applies gentle pressure to their body.

When Your Child Is Increasingly Irritated by Clothing, Tags, Socks, and Other Fabrics

This indicates increased sensitivity in their tactile systems. The brushing program described above can be helpful in decreasing the sensitivity (see this brush on my website). Playing with tactile materials such as clay, play dough (or cookie dough), paper mache, or finger paints can help, but may be difficult to do while on vacation. Travel with a small sensory bag that includes items such as a small container with rice or beans with little toys to find with their fingers and silly putty.

When Your Child is Having Difficulty Controlling Emotions

This can appear as either losing their temper or shutting down participation and withdrawing completely. When children are too revved up they might be more emotional (this is the meltdown that comes out of the blue), irritable or even angry, and/or exhibiting “over-the-top” or “bad” behavior. These children need calming activities, such as watching a movie or reading. Children who are withdrawing partially or completely or seem listless or tearful will need to participate in activities that are revving, such as a dance party, outside march, or some of the activities above to help them feel gravity.

Want to know more? My book, Unique Learner Solutions, is available on my website and on Amazon. It is packed with information and strategies to help you navigate life with your unique learner. Interested in knowing more? Find information about the book HERE.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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