Seven Ways to Help Children with Autism Navigate the Holiday Season
By: Jamie Delaney, BCBA, Early Autism Project, Florida Regional Director
The holidays are full of family functions, decorations, fun traditions, food and shopping and it’s no surprise juggling everything can often cause a little stress on parents. While parents work hard to keep it all together through the month of December, it’s important to realize changes in routines are a top stress trigger for children with autism. The heightened travel, navigating unfamiliar and maybe even complex family dynamics and school vacations remove children from their regular schedule. While the holidays can be a joyful time, it can be challenging to maintain a routine that works for your family, particularly if you have a child with autism. The following are seven tips to help maintain a little holiday peace:
- Use a written/visual schedule. Include all significant daily events and incorporate things that are similar to what your child might experience during the regular school year. Your child will have a much easier time adjusting to going back to school if bedtimes, wake up times and mealtimes stay consistent. If you need to change these times, incorporate a snack, nap or reading time to help your child adjust to the difference. Consider using a dry erase board so you can adjust the schedule as needed and review changes with your child.
- Incorporate school activities into your day. Provide learning opportunities that complement what your child is learning at school. For example, if you want to teach measurements, prepare a favorite family recipe or if you want to educate your child about plants, plan a trip to a local botanical garden or science museum. This will help generalize your child’s skills to their natural environment and keep their brain engaged and active.
- Familiarize your child with friends and family members. We may only see some friends and family members once a year. It’s almost impossible for any child to build and maintain a relationship with people they see so infrequently, but this is especially challenging for a child with autism. Create a photo album for your child and talk to them about common interests they have with the people they will visit. Help reacquaint them through phone, video conferencing and/or social media prior to the visit. Additionally, give your friends and family an update on your child, let them know about your child’s likes and dislikes and provide suggestions on how they can be supportive.
- Prepare your child for a new environment. If you plan to travel this holiday season, use social stories, pictures and videos to introduce or refamiliarize your child to the places you will be visiting, including the hotel or house where you will be staying. Show them where they will be sleeping and eating and where they can do activities they enjoy. If your child becomes easily overwhelmed, find a quiet place and take a break. Pack familiar, comforting items to help your child to feel more at home in the unfamiliar environment. Incorporate a variety of activities your child will enjoy to help ensure he/she stays happy and engaged.
- Pre-plan the menu. Many children have selective palates, food sensitivities, allergies and texture concerns. Plan ahead to ensure there are plenty of familiar options for your child and preferably ones that complement the rest of the menu so your child will feel included and happy.
- Avoid large crowds. If you need to go shopping and it’s a busy time, consider online and delivery shopping options or arrange for your child to stay home with a friend or family member. For younger children, many communities provide a sensory-friendly Santa or other appropriate holiday events. Check with your local malls, schools and clinics for more information about your area.
- Listen to your child: Work to set aside time each day to communicate with your child. If he/she is verbal, discuss their thoughts on the holiday plans, routines and traditions that are important to them. If your child is nonverbal, pay special attention to his/her cues to help determine what activities are fun or stressful and adjust your plans accordingly.
If you have any questions, contact your program supervisor for more individualized recommendations to help your child navigate the stress and changes that may happen during the holidays. Everyone at Early Autism Project wishes our families a very happy and safe holiday season!