The holidays are upon us and while we may think it is nothing but fun to spend time with relatives and friends we see once every year, it can be a more challenging time for children on the autism spectrum. Caroline Eggerding, Vice President of Clinical Services and Chief Medical Officer at Bancroft, a leading provider of programs and services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, created several useful tips for a smooth holiday season.
The following are suggestions to help prepare families and the child with a developmental disability who may also have obsessive or compulsive behaviors to achieve maximum enjoyment of this special time of the year:
- Think ahead about which aspects of your holiday traditions mean the most to you and your family. Give yourself permission to not participate in aspects that are less meaningful to you and may be stressful for your child.
- Decide whether visiting others’ homes or hosting events at your home would make the best sense. Keeping your child in a familiar surrounding with familiar routines may be easier.
- If you do visit someone else’s home, ask ahead of time if there is a quiet place where your child may go in case the environment is too stimulating. You might also want to go there for a visit a day or two before the actual event to familiarize your child with that environment.
- Make sure your child is dressed in familiar and comfortable clothes that are less likely to trigger sensory issues.
- Bring home-cooked meals if your child has special dietary needs or have him/her eat before visiting.
- Show your child where the bathroom is in the home you are visiting.
- Consider asking the hosts to remove breakable items that may be on display as the child may want to explore this new environment.
- Practice social greetings ahead of time, use family photos, picture albums and social stories to rehearse reciprocal interactions and familiarize the child with people he/she will be seeing in person
- Practice opening gifts and cards ahead of time and throwing away wrapping paper
- Give yourself permission to stay for just a short visit
- At home, remember that lots of decorations with lights, music and bells may be very distracting or tantrum producing to children with sensory or over stimulation issues
- Keep visual and auditory decorations to a minimum if they produce anxiety
- Decorate gradually to allow your child time to adjust to a changed environment and have them assist in decorating if appropriate
For children who may obsess about the coming holiday or a certain gift or desired item, the following can be helpful:
- Hang a calendar and allow the child to put an “x” through each day that counts down to the big day
- Set aside a specific time period each day that your child may discuss the holiday or a desired item. This may be combined with a token economy or “earning” system and used as a reinforcer
- Author a social story that your child creates with you either verbally or through pictures that discusses the holiday or a specific desired item. Decide to read that story daily or at specified time periods as you count down to the holiday
- Engage in other activities during the day or evening that your child likes and praise him/her for attending and completing the activity
- Use drawing, painting or collage making to create holiday or gift themed works of art that can hang in a special place and viewed by the child and others and discussed at specified times