Simple Ways to Cut the Holiday Stress For Kids With Autism
Many of us look forward to the holidays for all kinds of reasons. After all, it is often referred to as the “most wonderful time of the year!” We look forward to seeing friends and family, some of whom we have not seen in quite some time, and to the yummy selection of foods that are associated with our family’s and friend’s traditions. Since it only comes once a year, we also have high standards or expectations for how we want the holidays to be. Because of these high expectations we place on the things we do and the places we go over the holidays, they can also be a huge source of disappointment or stress if “things” do not go quite as we had planned.
While it may be true that we can all experience anxiety over the holidays, it may be even more difficult for a child or teen with autism and his/her family. So how can we minimize the stress that a child or teen with autism may experience over the holidays? I have been working with children and teens with autism and their families for two decades now, and I am here to share a few of the things that I have seen to work over the years.
1. Teach your child to notice how he/she is coping
This involves present moment awareness and is best taught using mindfulness techniques. These can be guided mindfulness activities and can range in length, or they can be exercises that direct our attention to our senses in different contexts. I have been doing these kinds of exercises with many of the children and teens that I work with and they often report that they do not like it at the very beginning, but once they have been exposed to it for short periods of time (3 minutes at a time) and over multiple occasions, they come to like it and use it to cope with difficult situations.
In fact, many of the teens I work with really enjoy it after a while. If we can notice we are becoming overwhelmed then we can make choices that help us cope. We can choose to go to our safe space and do some breathing exercises to calm ourselves down or to use the strategies that are familiar to us. This is another skill that will help empower your child or teen in all kinds of different contexts. The best way to do this is set aside time every day to practice and build upon successes. I also encourage family members to practice together so that they can encourage one another. This can really improve your child or teen’s quality of life, but don’t take my word for it, there are many studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals that highlight the benefits to contacting the present moment and to doing mindfulness on a regular basis.
2. Empower your child with skills
This is a bit complex and likely could serve as a lengthy article on its own. I am going to try to keep it succinct here. Start by figuring out expectations. Whether you are going to a relative’s home for a meal or an open house, what will be expected of your child or teen with autism when you get there? Will there be a meal at a table, or will your child/teen be expected to eat a buffet? What activities will there be to do? Once you know this, you can prepare your child/teen by teaching him/her the skill or the thing they need to be able to do.
This includes things like sitting at the dinner table, or waiting in line for a buffet meal but it also might mean teaching him/her to wait for 5, 10 or even 15 minutes. Teach the behavior that will set him/her up for success in the context of the type of event that you will be attending. Some of these skills will serve him/her well in many other contexts. For example, the ability to tolerate having to wait, whether it be in a line up at a party, in a grocery store, or for the Internet to work, is one of the most important skills you can teach your child/teen. In some cases, the expectations may be too high. In those cases, have a plan for how you will mitigate the situation. If your child cannot sit for extended periods of time at the table, then set the expectation to what he or she can do and adapt accordingly.
If it means you leave early or have a place for him/her to go while everyone else is still sitting at the table, then that is what you need to do. You know your child better than anyone and you know in your heart what you can expect from him/her. Don’t ask for more than what he/she can reasonably do, especially in the context of the holidays. I am all about challenging and getting kids and teens with autism out of his/her comfort zone to empower them with new and important skills, but this must be done in a way that is systematic and fair. The holidays are definitely not the time for this.
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3. Give your child a quiet place to escape to
Depending on your child or teen, there may be all kinds of things or places that might create anxiety over the holidays. Things like crowded rooms, new environments, new people, new foods, and the list goes on and on. Different children/teens have anxious behavior for different reasons. Know your child/teen’s reason and give him/her an out when it becomes overwhelming.
Identify the space in your home for this purpose and also check with the host/hostess if you are going to another person’s home or venue for a space that you could use for this purpose. There needs to be a safe place for him/her to go to when he/she is feeling overwhelmed. Teach your child to ask to go for a “break” or for “quiet time” when needed and honor this request. It’s much better to let him/her go to a safe place when requested than to wait for a crisis.
4. Have a safety plan
Finally, despite all of our best efforts, sometimes it is just better to leave a situation. If your child or teen becomes so overwhelmed that he/she becomes what might best be described as “in crisis,” then you need to cut your losses and get your child to a safe place. This is what I mean by having a safety plan. This plan would outline what a crisis is and who does what in that situation. For example, a crisis might mean when your teen starts to hurt him/herself or others. In this case, you would want to have friends and family leave or leave yourselves. Your plan would outline who tells the guests they have to leave or who gets the coats and bags, , whatever works for your unique situation, but it would be a good idea to outline the roles and responsibilities for all of those involved.
These are just a few of the things we can do to help minimize the impact of some of the stressors for children and teens with autism that are present over the holidays. A good place to start when considering the tips that I just mentioned is with the holidays that have already come and gone. Pay attention to what happened over the holidays that have passed and garner as much information from them that you can to help you set your family up for success in the future. There are always lessons to be learned for everyone involved.
As always, I am grateful to share these with you, and if you should have any questions about anything that I have written I would be happy to clarify, so please reach out, and I will do my best. I truly hope and wish for everyone reading this that the holidays are not a huge source of stress for your family and that you are indeed able to enjoy them for what they are: an opportunity to enjoy family and friends. Happy Holidays!
Sarah Kupferschmidt realized that behavior analysis was her calling when she first started working with children with autism in 1999. Once she discovered its effectiveness and the impact it had in helping children with autism and their families, it inspired her to pursue a Master’s of Arts in Psychology with a specialization in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno. She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Not only does Sarah enjoy working directly with children with autism, but she’s also very passionate about empowering others with the most effective tools to teach children with autism. She has been training staff and clinicians and coaching parents on how to do this since she started. She is also passionate about the science and research behind the tools that she advocates. In partnership with Brock University, Sarah is currently involved in a research project that involves the evaluation of a parent-training package that will help empower parents with tools to teach their children with autism important safety skills. She has been a part-time or adjunct professor since 2005, teaching ABA courses. Sarah also regularly presents workshops to parents, therapists, and educators on a variety of topics related to teaching or working with individuals with autism. Sarah is a Huffington Post contributor, a TEDx speaker, and was named Top Safety Contributor for Autism Parenting Magazine in 2014 and Top Behavior Analysis Writer for 2015.
This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism