Holidays can be so special given the unique traditions and activities that we get to participate in at this time of the year. Because they are really only celebrated once a year, it may be challenging for your child with autism. For tips on how to prepare your child with autism for these events that they may only encounter once a year, check out our article on preparing for the holidays.
For many of us, family is a tremendous part of the holidays, as we get together to celebrate this time of the year. Depending on your situation you may have large family gatherings or you may have a handful of people that get together. Going to these events can be a source of stress or you can prepare for them in a way that ensures you can all make the best of the time you have with your family. Here are five things you can do to make this year’s holiday one to remember:
1. Food for Thought
If your child has a unique diet, it is always a good idea to be prepared to bring things for your child that you know they are likely to eat. Contact the host ahead of time to let them know about some of your child’s unique needs when it comes to eating. If possible offer to help by bringing some of the food that you know your child would eat. This helps ensure your child is included in the same way that everyone else is.
2. Bring Activities For Your Child
Because these kinds of family gatherings do not typically occur that frequently, it can be a challenge for your child with autism. One of the really great ways we can set them up for success and to make them feel more comfortable is by bringing things that they typically do at home into the new environment. This can be things like electronics that are easy to bring with us, or it could be some other toy or activity that they like to do, such as lego or puzzles. Bringing these items can help them play functionally with something and helps with some of the challenges that are often associated with family gatherings (e.g., waiting times between arrival and meals, rooms filled with lots of people that may or may not be all that familiar to your child with autism).
3. Set up a Buddy System
Depending on your child’s unique strengths and areas of need you may need to be particularly vigilant at family gatherings in order to ensure his/her safety. In order for you, the parent to be able to spend some time celebrating with the family members you may not get to see all that often, I would highly recommend that you set up a buddy system. What I mean by this is to have one person responsible for helping your child with autism throughout the event at different periods of time. This can be you for most of the time but if you can also divide the time with a spouse, or another family member it means that you can have a break and your child also creates memories with someone else. Do you have nieces or nephews that could responsibly be paired up with your child for short periods of time? Just make sure that whoever you choose is familiar to your child and can be trusted to be vigilant themselves while they are responsible for your child.
4. Create a Safe Haven for Your Child
The holidays and particularly holiday gatherings can be a source of sensory overload. To help mitigate some of the challenges that may be associated with too much sensory stimulation you could ask the host if there is somewhere quiet that you and your child can go in the event that they need a break from all of the festivities. This space should be quiet, free from lots of decorations and people. You can bring your child there if you notice they are becoming agitated by all of the noise, sounds, people and lights. You can teach them to ask for it by giving it a name (e.g., break room, quiet room) whatever works for you and your child. If your child communicates in a different way, make sure that you have something for him/her to use to communicate that request for the quiet room, whether it be a sign or a picture symbol.
5. Communicate with the host
Communicating with the host well before the event is always a good idea. They may not know how they can help your child and by reaching out and letting them know some of your child’s unique areas of need you can help ensure the gathering goes well for everyone involved. You may be pleasantly surprised at how amenable the host is in making some of these small accommodations.
Celebrating our families is what the holidays are all about! Let’s make this one a year to remember! I wish you all the best for the holidays!
Sarah Kupferschmidt has her Masters in Psychology with a specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has worked with hundreds of children with autism and their families since 1999. She has clinically supervised and trained hundreds of staff on how to implement treatment strategies that are based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), she conducts parent coaching and training in the form of workshops for families and teachers on a variety of topics (e.g., safety skills, toilet training, language development, using technology to teach, and challenging behavior) just to name a few. She is a Part-Time Professor and Co-Founder of Special Appucations, which is an mhealth company that develops solutions for children with special needs using ABA to inform the instructional design. Sarah has appeared on Hamilton Life, CP24, CHCH news, the Scott Thompson radio show, The Bill Kelly radio show and on A Voice for All on Rogers TV and Mom Talk Radio.
This article was featured in Issue 41 – Celebrating Family