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Are We There Yet? Make Summer Trips Extra Memorable

[Originally published in Exceptional Parent's July 2016 edition]

Summer vacations are such an important part of childhood that create lasting memories. Here are some suggestions to help your child with special needs enjoy all of the awe and wonderment of those special family getaways! BEFORE THE VACATION Time Concepts Mark the date of your upcoming vacation on a calendar. So that your child can feel time, ask “How many months/weeks/days are there from today until we leave for vacation?” Each day, you can cross off the days that have passed and ask “How many have we crossed off?” and “How many more are left until our vacation?” Demonstrate what the concepts behind the target words actually mean. Point out that a ‘vacation’ usually means a longer period of time than a ‘trip’. Define how the family is “vacating” the house to make it empty, or in other words, “without people inside”. Looking at the calendar once more, highlight the amount of days the vacation will last and ask, “How long will our vacation/trip be?” Distance Distance can also be experienced through the passing of time. Explain that you’re going to take a pretend vacation now. Using the blank side of a long roll of wrapping paper, draw a map showing your house at one end and the vacation spot at the other. On the paper, have your child write the current time and date at the start, which is your home. Set an hourly alarm to move a toy car, plane, train, or boat increasingly closer toward the destination to simulate the time your journey will take. Have your child write the time and date at that mark. You can ask questions like “How much time has passed since we left our house?” and “How much longer do you think it will take to get there?” Once you have ‘arrived’ at your destination, have your child note the time and date. Revisit your previous answers and now ask “How long did it take to get there?” and “Were you right about how long you thought?” Explain that, generally, a destination that is “far away” equals “a long time to get to” versus somewhere that is “close” which takes “a little bit of time.” You can also use this map exercise to help your child learn more about why certain modes of transportation are better than others, depending on the destination and time constraints. For example, it may look possible to drive from San Francisco to New York City, ride boat to Europe, and finally hop on a train to Russia. However, after your child experiences this mock traveling on paper, which will take more than a week, you can then use a toy airplane to show how that same distance can be traveled in just a day. Weather Draw a numbered thermometer with the following colors to represent the different temperatures from freezing to hot: dark blue, light blue, pink, and red. Show your child how to find the expected temperature of the destination online. After having her find it on the colored thermometer, list clothing both needed and not need to pack. Talk about why these items make sense based on the temperature. For example, ask why she would not need to pack a scarf if she is going to North Carolina in the summer. Start a Travel Diary In order to boost your child’s curiosity, preview images of the vacation destination online. Afterwards, have him write down some questions or comments in a travel diary for when your family is actually at those sights. This diary is also an excellent way to log and spark conversations about all the interesting things seen on the trip! Some questions could be: “Is it possible to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower?” “Who carved the presidents’ faces in Mount Rushmore? How did they do that?” Some comments might be: “In Mexico, people speak Spanish. I want to learn some Spanish words when we get there.” “I’ve never seen water shooting straight up in the air like Old Faithful!”

GETTING THERE By Car If you’re passing an area with lots of motels, have your child log in the diary how many “vacancy” vs “no vacancy” signs appear. When driving in more rural or remote areas, make notes on any wildlife (“Ooo…these cows are just hanging out in the cool shade because it’s so hot.”) If you experience any traffic, first comment about it, like “Ugh! This is a huge traffic jam!”, and then have your child track how long the slowdown lasts and note how much more time that adds to your trip. To add more details in the diary from others’ perspectives, whichever parent is driving can exclaim when something unique occurs, like “Oh, no! I missed the exit. Now we have to make a U-turn.” By Plane At the airport, you can note arrival and departure times, calculating how long or short the distance together with how far or close the destinations are. Make comments like, “ must take almost all day to travel to China from here.” Your child can discuss and draw where she thinks the conveyor belt is taking the luggage and where it’s stored. Say something like, “It’s much faster with a conveyor belt to move the passengers’ luggage to the inside of the plane than it would be for people to carry it from the airport to the plane,” and, “Why can’t we see where the luggage is when we’re on the plane?” Using the travel diary in flight, your child can draw the plane he is taking and what he knows is around him like blue sky above, clouds below, and buildings much further down on the page. Say something like, “We are so, so, so far up in the sky that we are even above the birds and the clouds. We can’t see any buildings below us, but we know they’re there.” By Boat To exemplify the seemingly endless ocean, your child can draw your ship as a tiny vessel relative to the rest of the sea it’s in. Then, she can draw buildings in the very far distance. Say something like, “We are so, so, so far out in the ocean that we can’t see any buildings, but we know they’re there.” On another page, she can also draw the ocean’s surface and waves with the sea life, shells, and the ocean floor below. Teach her about the water’s depth and how it affects our ability to see deeper than just a few feet when looking down from the ship. Other interesting diary entries may include logging other water vessels seen along the way or thinking of questions like, “Do you know why we don’t see anyone swimming way out here in the ocean, so far away from the shore?” Regardless of the mode of travel, your child can set a timer and log hourly diary entries indicating how much time has passed and how much remains before arrival based on the distance-mapping activity from before.

AT THE DESTINATION Previous Comments and Questions Turn to the page where your child jotted down his pre-vacation comments and questions. Help him bring those observations to life now that you’re finally there. Suggest that he get his questions answered by communicating with the tour guide or museum curator, by looking around, or by reading brochures. This new knowledge can, in turn, lead to further comments, questions, and discussion. Spontaneous Comments and Questions As you point out interesting sights or curiosities, make comments and ask questions to engage your child for a memorable experience. Examples follow: “Hey! Did that fish just jump out of the water?! Let’s watch the lake closely to see if the fish jumps again.” “Sleeping in this tent while we’re camping is not as comfortable as my bed at home. What do you think?” “What could we make with all of these sea shells we’ve collected?" “The ocean water is too cold for me. I will just put my feet in.” Have your child note these interesting experiences in his travel diary. Photographs and Souvenirs Taking pictures is important for reminiscing about passed events, but they can actually help children with special needs overcome distractions and concentrate on the focal point. For example, your child might be focused on a wad of bubble gum on the ground even though the geyser may be ready to erupt. By giving your child possession of the camera, it becomes a scope to zero-in on the correct target while filtering out unimportant ones. Being in control of the camera allows your child to take different perspectives as well. Not only can he can take the typical picture of Dad standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, but he can see another view from looking underneath the tower. Or perhaps he would choose to take pictures of a regular majestic mountain and compare it to his photo of Mount Rushmore with the presidents’ heads. At the souvenir shops, rather than simply purchasing a T-shirt for your child, consider items that stimulate more memories and conversation, like a pencil sharpener reminiscent of the destination, a viewfinder containing photos, or a state coloring book. AFTER YOU RETURN HOME Combining everything your child has learned, discuss the notes your child has taken in his travel journal along with all the meaningful photos and souvenirs. In this way, whenever “How was your vacation,” or “What did you do on your trip?” is asked, your child is prepared to maintain a flowing conversation. Examples follow: “I saw a huge bell, but it doesn’t ring anymore because it’s cracked. This pencil sharpener is really tiny, but the real one is huge!” “Mom didn’t want to go in the ocean because the water was too cold. The water wasn’t too cold for me, so I went in!”“I didn’t like the geyser because it was too loud.” “I liked to sing campfire songs with my brother and sister.”“Look at this picture I took underneath the Eiffel Tower. It’s like being under a big capital letter ‘A’.” “Dad is standing next to the Empire State Building. He’s so tiny in this picture because the building is so big. I couldn’t fit the whole building into the picture because it was so big.” COMMUNICATION JOURNEYS AWAIT! Using these suggestions with your child before, during, and after a vacation allows for the best communication and the most memorable experiences. Your child will be a highly active participant in your family getaway – and more confident and excited than ever to share these experiences with others.


About the author: Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP, has been a communication expert for over 20 years. As a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor, Karen has been empowering people with autism & special needs to have more meaningful conversations like never before. Her highly effective I CAN! For Autism Method™ - perfected for over 10 years and now incorporated within the iPad app “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” - is changing lives through improved social and language skills. It is 100% fun for both kids and adults to use! Join the conversation at

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