The summer holidays can be arduous for parents of special needs children. Claire Kingston from the Good Schools Guide SEN team has an emergency toolkit.
No school, different routines and round-the-clock care; parents of children with special needs are faced with their biggest challenge of the year when it comes to the six long weeks of summer. It’s no wonder that many parents fear how they are going to cope.
Dr Laura Cockburn, an educational psychologist at The National Autistic Society (NAS), encourages parents to ‘Learn to be your own psychologist’. Consider your child’s needs, consider your family. Then approach it like a business project.
Make a plan
- Get key family members together (children too if appropriate), and brainstorm some ideas together. Find out what everybody in your family wants to do, and, most importantly, what they like doing.
- Talk to teachers before they break up and replicate some school activities and/or routines (this will help with the transition back to school too).
- Plan some days with siblings, some days without, so that your other children get some attention, and the chance to do activities which may not be possible with your SEN child.
- Plan at least one activity a day, and if possible keep it local. Sometimes the best plans are the most simple; a bus ride, a walk to the park or playing in the garden. Don’t be too ambitious; it will be exhausting for everyone.
- This must be a multi-pronged plan that considers everyone, even you. Think what works at weekends, or what worked well last summer, and include it in your plan.
Do your research
First port of call is your council’s local offer website. Check out play schemes, like Jam Packed Summer in Halifax, where parents can book six days of activities including horse-riding, trampolining or trips to theme parks.
Investigate local groups on the National Autistic Society and Mencap websites. These offer opportunities to try out new activities like climbing or roller-skating with families in the same position, or to book your SEN child into supported sessions.
Network to find out what’s available in your area. Contact school parent support groups, sign up for newsletters and go to coffee mornings. Speak to friends and other parents; join forces for days out and set up play dates.
Get ideas from forums like Mumsnet’s on special needs and the Special Needs Jungle website.
Evenings spent on the internet is time well spent.
Create a calendar
Plot a weekly calendar, maybe shopping on Mondays, swimming on Wednesdays. ‘Make plans to fit your family, lifestyle, locality, transport and financial situation,’ says Pam Stephens from Kent County Council’s Specialist Teaching and Learning Services.
Then set out a daily task list with regular activities and set mealtimes, this will put routines in place. Include some quiet time, creative time and even time for schoolwork. Prepare your child for these changes and stick to routines as much as possible. Colour-code your plan, highlight what is happening when.
Liaise with school so that the same strategies and visual supports are used at home.
Put it on the wall, talk about it, refer to it, and make it familiar for all the family.
Home or away?
Some parents put holidays away in the ‘too difficult to do’ box, but there are plenty of centres in the UK and abroad (Autism Services Directory at NAS lists holiday venues) that are set up for families with a disabled or special needs child. These centres consider the whole family; you just need to choose the one that’s right for you. Find out what facilities are provided and consider the specific needs of your child, both physical and sensory.
Consider travel times (and traffic jams); remember, a holiday nearby is still a holiday.
If you’re going somewhere new, help others to understand your child’s needs, call ahead and speak to the centre or a rep.
If you are flying, check out our guide to the UK's airports which will tell you what assistance and facilities are available at the airport here.
According to parents the Calvert Trust and Bendrigg Lodge in the Lake District, is ‘fantastic, with accessible activities in abundance.’ They have centres in Keswick and Exmoor too. Centre Parcs also have disability friendly chalets but not all sites are fully accessible, so do check first. Or try Harriet Davis Trust, ‘it has all singing all dancing accommodation. It’s been built by a family who know what children with complex needs actually need'.
Ask for help
Everybody needs a support network, talk to family and friends and plan ahead; have those you can call on in your hour of need, and those that can help in small ways, like unloading the car.
It’s important to look after yourself too, so use your calendar to manage your own time and stress. Accept that you can’t do it all and look at ways you can give yourself regular breaks.
Look at the Direct Payments schemes that can be used to fund a personal assistant or a short break holiday. If eligible, families can receive a payment and organise support themselves.
Look close to home too; can the grandparents babysit occasionally? Or can friends invite siblings for a sleepover once in a while? If stress levels do start to rise, try speaking to another parent who understands. Look online for local support groups or why call the Parent-to-Parent service set up by NAS (0808 800 4106), or The SEN National Advice Service (0808 808 3555).
You know your child best
And you know their special needs best. Check facilities and accessibility before you go. Avoid trigger situations. Is a shopping centre a sensory overload for your child? Do they feel safe? Do they understand where they are going or what they are doing? Do they know what’s coming next? Look out for changes in behaviour, increased anxiety or getting upset.
Have a distraction ready or be prepared to call it a day and revert to something tried and tested.
Finally, make notes at the end of the day to help with next year’s preparations; this is a summer plan that will grow with you and your family, year on year.