Executive Functions

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Executive Functions are those secretarial tasks your brain performs for you, and they’re developing over the course of childhood and young adulthood. So kids’ Executive Function abilities vary, and luckily they’ll improve.

The main Executive Function we use on vacations is thinking ahead. Most of the time, I estimate that James is thinking about 30 seconds ahead:

My toe hurts. Let’s go home!

While I’m liable to get bogged down thinking 30 years ahead:

James is going to have to wear velcro shoes to his office. 

James starts each day of a vacation bursting with ideas about what to do. He doesn’t take into account how many hours there are in a day, how much energy each member of the family will have, money, travel time, etc. That’s all my job.

For many kids, planning ahead requires abstract thinking abilities they don’t yet have.

Luckily, since James began to self-regulate a few years ago, he collapses as in the photo above. In the past, he’d wear himself out and then wonder:

  1. why he felt so bad
  2. when the next activity was coming

When on vacation, keep in mind that your child needs your help thinking ahead more than ever. Some examples of how this can impact a vacation day:

  • Walking past an ice cream shop and wanting it right away. You have dinner reservations in an hour.
  • Seeing a unicorn Beanie Boo in a souvenir shop that’s easily available at home and costs his entire souvenir allowance.
  • Refusing to take a 10-minute walk to see a beautiful waterfall because “I’m too tired,” then running around the hotel lobby like a maniac instead.
  • Having a fit because you “take so long” to get out of the house, as you collect items you might need over the course of the day: snacks, swimwear, sunscreen, tickets, etc.

It’s always the same, even as James ages. He’s the enthusiast, and I’m the worrier. When we work together, though, it’s a better day for both of us.

My essay for Mother.ly about a Disney vacation.

Sameness

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We’ve spent 9 of the past 12 summer vacations in the same part of the North Carolina mountains. In fact, we’re there right now.

My favorite way to keep things familiar is to bring our dog, Charlie, along. We’ve also stayed multiple years in the same rental house, eaten at the same restaurants, and visited the same attractions.

By keeping certain parts of the trip constant, we’ve been able to get James comfortable enough to accept all sorts of changes and new experiences. After three summers mulling it over and driving past, he finally tried — and loved — zip lining.

And get this: it may sound like a small thing, but it’s HUGE. We always stop for fast food on the long drive up to NC. This time, James took a break from his just-the-meat-and-the-bun-please hamburger to try my fully dressed cheeseburger.

The more we respect what James needs to keep constant, the more of those inevitable changes, disappointments, and novelties he can tolerate.

Here’s how I do it:

Planning: Repeat parts of an old vacation. Even if we go to a new place, we can stay in the same chain hotel on the way, bring the same pet, eat pizza the first night.

Packing: Comfort items, of course. But also specific types of snack or breakfast food that might be hard to find where we’re going.

Daily scheduling: There’s no need to stick to a rigid schedule just to keep things organized. The weather in the mountains is liable to scuttle any plans we make anyway. We make a list of must-do traditional activities and sprinkle the calendar with these, checking them off as we go. This way we can show James that some preferred event has already happened or is upcoming.

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After: We make photo albums and reminisce to our hearts’ content. Nowadays, it’s the inconsistencies we remember fondly, not the same old stuff.

Further reading:

My essay in Ann Arbor Family about anxiety.

My essay on Brain Child about James’s long-ago fear of hand dryers.

 

Sensory Issues

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James has a love-hate relationship with the beach. It’s a warring collection of sensory disruptions and delights:

  • wet feet / sea foam
  • wet bathing suit / the deep pressure of immersing himself
  • wet towel / warm sun
  • sand between the toes / sand castles with moats
  • sun in the eyes / sea breezes
  • rogue waves up the nose / body surfing
  • jellyfish stings / sea life

Hotel rooms are the same way. Just like waves and sand at the beach, there are things you can count on in a hotel room: bedspreads, ice bucket, closet. For highly sensitive kids, though, differences stick out:

  • Sight: lights too dim or too bright, garish carpet patterns, ceiling fans
  • Hearing: humming electricity, noisy neighbors, loud plumbing
  • Touch: scratchy sheets, mushy pillows, gritty carpet
  • Taste: it’s anyone’s guess what’s for dinner, and the water might taste different
  • Smell: Cleaners, cigarettes, pets, pool chemicals

All kids are different, and what bothers them one year might be no big deal the next. Also, many kids with sensory sensitivities can’t verbalize them. At age 12, James has just started complaining about specific discomforts. In the past, he’d have a tantrum and I’d have to guess at what was wrong.

So keep sensory issues in the back of your mind as you try to get your child comfortable in a new setting. Introduce sensory fixes when you think your child is uncomfortable:

  • sheets or towels from home to replace scratchy hotel linens
  • goggles for eyes that sting
  • sunglasses
  • extra bathing suits and towels to replace wet ones
  • pillow spray
  • slippers for scratchy carpets

When preparing, think about what might ease sensory discomfort. But keep these items under wraps. Your child might surprise you with his flexibility!

Further reading:

  • An autism-friendly beach town in South Carolina.
  • A PSA puts you in the shoes of an overwhelmed young woman with autism.

Self-regulation

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Behold, James and Margot after a long day of car travel.

I’d much rather tiptoe around these slumbering cuties than tame the two whiny, cantankerous monsters they’d have ended up without access to a hotel room.

When kids are in school, they follow a routine that meets most kids’ needs for sleep, food, quiet activity, and active play. Travel can turn that routine on its head.

It’s amazing how well some kids self-regulate when routines are disrupted. Some examples:

  • an infant falls asleep in a stroller or baby sling
  • a toddler stands on his head in an airport lounge
  • a tween pulls a granola bar out of her carryon bag

Other kids, among them reluctant travelers like James, need help staying regulated. When dysregulated, they’re unhappy, defiant, and impulsive. As a result, they might not accept what they need most when they most need it. The most frustrating example for me is refusing to sleep when overtired.

Advance planning is the best way to support kids’ self-regulation during travel. Work around kids’ sleep and meal schedules, and what times of day they’re most active. A typical school day is a good guide.

Travelers can’t always avoid disruption. When it happens, plan to help your child recover. Make naps seem like the day’s main event. Keep physical demands to a minimum, hoping for a zone-out in the stroller or car. If they’re up too late, it’s always best to put them to sleep early the next night, rather than to place all your hopes on sleeping late.

If your child is dysregulated, your job is to to recognize it and help him compensate. Watch out for drowsiness or fussiness, or — just as likely — wildness and lack of focus. Then, help your child to meet expectations but don’t expect his best behavior. These aren’t the times your child will try a new food, skip a meal, kiss an elderly relative, tolerate a broken iPad. Think Goldfish crackers, a well-loved movie or book, and a comfort item like a stuffed toy or blanket.

Some trips are so short, or so full of changes, that there’s not enough time for your child to self-regulate during the trip. Our best, calmest trips are at least a week long, staying in the same place the whole time. If we return to the same place the following year, James adjusts quicker and might actually try something he’d refused to try the year before.

Further reading: Jessie Hewitson on traveling to the same place every year.