Preparing kids for vacations–critical visuals for Autism and Down syndrome

Susan Ellis - head shot

Having two boys on the Autism spectrum, I learned early on that visuals are a very effective way to communicate with my sons. Simple visual strategies such as a list of the day’s activities, or even a social story about what to expect in new situations has been my saving grace for over a decade.

As the summer is now upon us here in the USA, you may be planning on taking a vacation. If your children have special needs such as Autism, Down syndrome, Sensory Integration Disorder, etc., “fun vacations” could be very traumatic to them because they are out of their normal routine. There may be a lot of new sensory information to process (ie. new places to see, different smells, louder sounds, hotter weather, etc.) which can sometimes be overwhelming.

A week before you travel, take a few moments to gather some pictures of your adventure: where you will be staying, relatives you may see, places you will go, and types of transportation you may use. You may even want to include a map of where you live vs. where you will be going to give them some orientation. Providing this information at least a week in advance gives children an opportunity to feel more “in control” because they will be able to process the information, mentally prepare for it, and hopefully get excited about their trip.

Last month, we took our boys to Washington DC for a few days. I knew there would be many buildings that would look alike to them, and that there would be plenty of walking which would exhaust them. I made a small map for them and circled the places we would visit (see below). I also gave them a quick list (with pictures) of what we would see each day. As we expected, they were hot and tired, but we didn’t have any major meltdowns because they were mentally prepared for the day. I wish you safe and happy melt-free travels too!

dc map

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Using motivators to help those with Autism or Down syndrome succeed

As a mother of two Susan Ellis - head shotchildren with Autism, I have used many ways to motivate my children to stay on task, complete their homework, and behave appropriately.   One thing that always works is finding out what THEY are wanting on that day. Finding their “carrot” is always a more fun and positive path to accomplishment.

Traditional motivators could be something like stickers, food “treats”, or even a trip to the “treasure chest” filled with items from a dollar store. You could also extend the reward slightly by making a visual chart. For instance, place a check mark for each time they correctly go to the bathroom. Three check marks = their reward. I recently even used this extended reward system for my son (high functioning Autism) in middle school when we were trying to motivate him to stay on task in class (see chart below).

My friend has a child with Down syndrome who loves to simply spend time with mommy. There is your reward and motivator! Help him through his homework using this idea. Reward him for practicing his spelling words by offering to dance with him to his favorite music, or do a quick puzzle.

  • Choose the reward or motivator to be something they really want to work for.
  • Make a visual of this “offer” so they see exactly what they need to do to earn it.
  • Make it attainable in a reasonable amount of time. (Note: younger children need a reward more immediately; older children are better able to handle a slightly extended reward system.)

Using motivators also works well with teaching children handwriting–especially those with special needs that need…an extra carrot.

img015For more information about The TV Teacher’s award-winning handwriting programs, please visit our website: