Vacation is the highlight of the year for most of us, but for a child with special needs the onset of weeks of free time can be a recipe for disaster. There’s anxiety, stress and a host of expectations that come with the loss of a routine that can stir the makings of a meltdown.

But with a little planning and a relaxed approach, vacation can be peaceful for all involved.

Behavior expert Deborah Lipsky, who has autism herself, is back to walk you through the steps to a meltdown-free vacation.

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Scheduling is a must

It might be your natural tendency to throw the schedule out the window when school and work are on hiatus, but free time is dangerous, Lipsky says. It just breeds opportunity for anxiety and failed expectations.

Instead you want to stick to a schedule – preferably a written one – that mimics the schedule you’re used to, albeit with more fun activities. Try to wake up around the same time you typically do and, at the very least, eat meals at the same time as usual.

It is vacation, after all, so things can be light and fun — schedule game time or have the kids help bake cookies — but it’s important to have a plan.

“For a lot of people with school vacation it’s like they never saw it coming and then the child has all this down time,” Lipsky says. “Down time is never a good time. Children who have activities throughout the day have something to look forward to.”

The same goes when you travel or attend a holiday party. Provide a time frame ahead of time regarding how long you plan to stay and then stick to it.

“Special needs kids are very concrete and literal,” Lipsky says. So, staying for even a few extra minutes beyond what you planned could lead to major anxiety.

Clue everyone in

Before heading out to grandma’s house or inviting company to your home, be honest about your child’s special needs with everyone who will be in attendance.

Give friends and family a primer on your child’s disability and triggers for potential behavior problems, so that they can fill you in if they notice warning signs. And, don’t be afraid to lay down some ground rules like no hugging or no perfume, if simple adjustments could make the difference between a successful visit and a disastrous one.

“A lot of people expect their relatives to know how to handle their child. Unless you’re with them 24/7, you don’t,” Lipsky says. “If you explain to people that little Jimmy can’t handle being around a lot of people and would prefer to say ‘hi’ in the privacy of his room, they will understand.”

Keeping everyone in the loop can also go a long way toward preventing disappointment if, for example, Jimmy doesn’t like a certain food or is unhappy with a gift.

Remember who your child is and who they are not

Just because it’s vacation time doesn’t mean that your child’s special needs are going to take a break.

“A child with special needs is the same child whether it’s December 25 or May 10,” Lipsky says.

So the safest bet is to keep your expectations reasonable and be honest about what your child can and cannot handle.

“If the child can’t handle it, it’s best not to have the child engage in those activities. You shouldn’t have to make excuses for it. You should just say this is my son. They don’t particularly like it. They would rather be by themselves,” Lipsky says. “There is no reason to force a child to be at a gathering that doesn’t really do much for them because they’re not going to have a good time and neither are you.”

The key is to keep things in perspective. If dressing up is going to cause a problem, casual clothes will be okay. If sharing toys isn’t a strong point, this isn’t the time to press the point. And if you’re child doesn’t typically attend religious services, a holiday is probably not the day to start.

Accommodations are okay, and even preferable

No matter where your vacation takes you, don’t be afraid to make adjustments for a person with special needs. That may mean setting aside a room the person can hang out in during a crowded party or asking for special treatment from a store or an airline.

The trick to getting accommodations is to be honest. Even stores like Wal-Mart will help you out if you call ahead and say you have a child with special needs, Lipsky says.

If you’re traveling, call the airline, bus or train provider ahead of time to request whatever it is that you need to make your trip a peaceful one. Oftentimes arrangements can be made to allow your family to skip ahead in security lines, board before other passengers or receive accommodation for medication or special equipment.

Plan ahead if your child wants to go shopping or see Santa. Go early in the morning or late at night when malls are less crowded. Or, better yet, ask Santa to make special time for your child during a break so there are no worries about a line.

Just remember to be prepared whether you’re headed down the street or across the country. “Bring coping strategies for that child, special toys or things that you normally do to keep that child quiet,” Lipsky says.

And, if you’ll be going somewhere new during vacation, try to check out the new locale ahead of time with your child so that you can pick up on potential problem areas or triggers for behavior before you’re stuck.

Promises will get you in trouble

Making a plan and sticking to it is vital, but a schedule alone is not enough. What if the schedule says that you’re going to grandma’s house, but a snowstorm hits and you simply can’t get there? Well, that’s where plan B comes in.

The trick is to lay out plan B at the same time you present plan A. So, instead of just saying that you’ll be visiting grandma, indicate an alternate plan in the unlikely event that you can’t make the trip.

“A lot of these kids need scripts. They’re waiting for the activity and don’t understand why it doesn’t happen,” Lipsky says.

Similarly she advises staying away from promises of specific gifts. Agreeing to give a certain item could be a dangerous set-up for disappointment even if there are only slight variances (like color or size) in the gift that’s received.

Crunch time

If you do sense a tantrum coming, the first thing to do is to scan your surroundings to identify the cause.

“Anxiety and meltdowns don’t come out of the blue,” Lipsky says. “There’s always a warning pattern that comes ahead of time.”

Perhaps the room is too noisy. Maybe there’s another child or a pet agitating your child with special needs. Or, maybe it’s just getting too late and the child’s patience is all gone. Then, adjust accordingly.

“If you can sense that your child is about to escalate and you’re in a room that’s buzzing and it’s filled with the smell of food, get the kid out of there,” Lipsky says.