Sunday, January 22, 2012
Traveling With Aspergers, Part 2
I've been thinking more about my last post, about traveling with someone (particularly a child or youth) who has Aspergers. I realized that most of what I said can apply to very young children, with or without Aspergers or autism spectrum issues. I guess some things about traveling we learn to deal with as we grow up, and the social/emotional immaturity of many people with AS predisposes them to need help learning these travel-related skills beyond the age-range most kids learn them. (Although I have to say, some adults don't cope well with travel even without ASDs, so some of my ideas will apply to any travel situation.)
Here are my three keys to travel with someone with AS:
It occurs to me that we can do very little in an unpremeditated manner in our lives with Safety Guy. Spur of the moment stuff is very difficult for us to manage. Every transition needs some sort of preparation for Safety Guy, whether it's an extra few minutes to get him to change mental gears and stop an activity before we go out to the grocery store, or a week or more spent discussing the details of a long trip to a new place. And he's gotten much more flexible as he's gotten older (relatively speaking - he still was ready to be upset when I asked him to leave early for church with me this morning, so we could drop something off on the way, but he went along with me after a few minutes). I can't just go up to him and say, "We're going to the store RIGHT NOW," and expect him to jump up and be ready immediately.
In our family, we have what we call the "10 minute warning" that we try to give Safety Guy before we need him to change activities when he's not expecting it. Just that little bit of time to wind up one activity before leaving to start another makes all the difference in his attitude and ability to make the change successfully. It works in the car as well, letting him know we'll be stopping, or that we need to get on the road again after a break, when we can often shorten the amount of transition time to "a few minutes."
For long trips, I carry a sort of "emergency kit" of things to distract the kids, for when they start to get sick of the drive (which is usually about one hour into a seven hour car trip). This could also probably be used on any trip by air, although we haven't had to fly with our kids. Here's a list of what's in a typical "Look, something shiny!" bag for our family when we travel any really long distance:
- a new Matchbox or Hot Wheels car (one of Safety Guy's comfort things is
carrying a toy car in his pocket - he has lots at home, but new ones are always a
- colored pencils, a sharpener, and paper or coloring books (for PYY, since Safety
Guy rarely draws)
- a new Mad Libs book (for all of us - a great family activity)
- a handful of high-interest books for both kids - things from home they maybe
haven't seen in a while, and something new for each of them (I figure if we're
taking the time/$$/trouble to travel all day, it's worth the money to actually
have a chance to ENJOY the trip)
- a couple books on CD or tape (they love listening to books in the car)
- a pack of gum for Safety Guy, and a pack of Tictacs or Lifesavers for PYY
(who can't have gum because of her braces)
- extra batteries for any electronic devices the kids bring
One thing that totally throws Safety Guy for a loop while traveling is a long delay, like a traffic jam, or traffic backed up because of an accident. The more frustrated he becomes with the delay, the more likely he is to take it out on everyone else in the car verbally. It's a nasty cycle. When we travel, we expect these kinds of things to happen, even if Safety Guy doesn't anticipate them. In the case of a traffic jam, if we can get off the highway and find an alternate route, we will, but often that's not an option. In that case, we try to distract him. Getting him talking about a favorite topic is a good starting point. There's also asking him questions about the cars around us (since he's a walking fount of trivia about vehicles of all kinds). Pull something out of the emergency bag. Distract, distract, distract. It can be exhausting for us, but it's not nearly as bad as him having a full meltdown when he's maxed out his coping skills and there's nowhere to go but ballistic.
One thing that helped Safety Guy on long trips, once he was a little older, was to put him in charge of THE MAP. We'd give him a map of our trip, and he'd keep track of how far we'd come, what was coming next, and roughly how far we'd gone and still had to go. That was useful on several levels: it gave him a task to focus on, it made him feel somewhat in control (oriented in time/space as we motored along), and it taught him a lot about map reading and geography - a home school/Aspergers win/win if ever there was one.
I realized quite a while ago that I spend a lot of time anticipating what can be an issue for Safety Guy in any situation we encounter, and trying to head off problems before they occur. I've worried in the past that I anticipate too much, because I know he has to learn to handle things for himself eventually. I've consciously backed off and let him try to handle many more things for himself without my intervention, even though I'm ready to step in if necessary. Safety Guy is old enough now (13 +) that he wants to handle things on his own, and he doesn't like to have his mother hovering around to embarrass him. Unless something is looming that I know will be a big problem immediately, I hang back and let him try to sort out what he needs to do. Or, quietly and without making a big deal, I'll say something to another adult he knows in the vicinity, and they'll give him some support. It's a constant balancing act, determining how much help he needs, and how much help to give, and how to give it without making it too obvious. Thankfully there are many adults in Safety Guy's life who know when and how to lend him a hand without embarrassing him.
I'd say that the keys to traveling with someone with Aspergers to minimize the chance of anyone having a major meltdown are to PLAN AHEAD, to BE PREPARED, and to BE AWARE. But, there are three other things I would add that are equally important:
MODEL the coping behaviors that you want the person with AS to learn - both emotionally, and in concrete skills,
VERBALIZE what you're doing and trying to teach them (spell it out, directly teach it - don't try to be subtle or assume they'll pick it up on the fly), and
STAY CALM, because they'll react to your emotions, positive or negative (you can't lose your cool and expect them to keep theirs).
And, if you're a person of faith, I have to add to PRAY, because nothing takes the place of the Lord's care for His children (parents and kids alike).