The holiday season is in full swing. We just packed up our costumes (yes, I dress up to go trick-or-treating with my kids) and jack-o-lanterns and are getting ready to gobble up some pumpkin pie surrounded by family and friends. Soon thereafter, there will be school programs and holiday parties that throw our daily routines into a spin. This is enough to ensure we are all exhausted and a bit disoriented. How do children and individuals with autism handle such hectic and unpredictable schedules? For the most part, it can be a struggle. However, there are things you can do to help during this time.
ANTICIPATE and PREPARE
Holidays are filled with uncertainty — mealtimes may be different, house guests might be using your favorite toys in the play room, noisier kitchen and other common areas of your house, more frequent trips to shops, etc. Having a general idea of what is in store during the holidays can help you prepare a plan for how to tackle all the changes. Does your child respond well to schedules? If so, maybe you can create a new one to reflect the change in routine. The use of activity schedules and advance notice has been shown to be very effective at reducing problem behaviors associated with uncertainty. Children with autism can respond well to visual prompts that provide information regarding upcoming activities or events. This, however, is something that may need to be taught in advance. So plan ahead and consult a behavior specialist for assistance on how to set up your child’s visual schedule for the holidays.
Know your child’s precursor behaviors — that is, what your child does before he/she gets overly upset (whine, stomp foot). This allows you to help them navigate the situation before things get out of hand. Individuals with autism often struggle expressing their wants and needs effectively, so it is important to keep a watchful eye for when their behavior indicates they may be reaching a point where the environmental conditions are unbearable. For some children, teaching a word or phrase to use in these conditions may be possible (“I need help,” “quiet time, please”). For others, with more limited communication repertoires, this may be an emerging skill. Therefore, caregivers can facilitate a transition away from the conditions associated with the precursor behaviors (from loud kitchen to quiet bedroom) before things escalate and become more difficult to manage.
If your child is overly sensitive to lights and loud sounds, you may want to try exposing them to some of the things they will encounter during an upcoming event. For instance, you could play some holiday music at a volume slightly louder than usual to allow your child to get accustomed to this background noise. You could also do trial runs of the modified schedule you created for them. By doing this, they will have already been exposed to the change in routine before all the family and friends descend on your house, adding another layer of complexity. You could also invite friends and family members to assist with these practice sessions. By exposing your child to a range of versions of the same event — dinner with different people, different foods, different seating arrangements — the more likely it is they will be able to generalize their behavior to novel situations (for the actual holiday event) or for when things don’t go quite as planned.
Sometimes, regardless of how well prepared you and your family are for the hectic holiday family gathering, it may be too much. Things may not go as planned. Dinner might be extremely delayed. The noise level might be too high. Santa might be scarier than anticipated. Have an exit strategy! There is no need to extend a visit or holiday celebration past the point where you and your family go from enjoying the event to dreading every second. Maybe you don’t get to spend as much time with your family or didn’t get around to participating in a much-cherished yearly holiday tradition.
Modeling flexibility and adaptability with our own behavior is useful when helping children with autism navigate unpredictable and sometimes less than desirable conditions (like an extremely crowded and loud dinner party). This also helps set the tone for others as to how to behave and react when our child struggles to conform to an activity or main event.
Traveling with children with autism can be challenging. For tips on holiday travel, you can review some of the videos developed by the Scott Center for Autism Treatment or the information shared by Autism Speaks.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!