No matter how much we love the season or cherish the celebration, all special events come packaged with additional stress. Whether it’s finding the perfect gift, baking signature desserts, or entertaining, we all understand the extra demands of creating memorable occasions.
Now magnify that stress to an unimaginable degree and you will begin to understand how special events impact our children with autism. We know that children on the spectrum do not like changes – even those that may delight – as do neurotypical kids. Their core deficits compromise their ability to anticipate or tolerate change very well…if at all. They prefer structure, predictability, schedules. Yet holidays, birthdays, and special events mean:
- Change in social contacts
- Change in daily routine
- Change in expectations
- Change in sensory experiences
For children with autism, all that change pushes anxiety beyond being bearable. Some routine changes fly under the radar, such as rearranging the house to accommodate decorations or cooking seasonal dishes. Other plans, like parties and travel that involves hotels or homes with new beds, new people, new smells, new sounds, clearly signal huge stress-inducing changes. Whether the change is big or small, children with autism must be prepared so they have every opportunity to experience the joy and fun these situations offer. Try these tips:
Define social expectations: Let your child know how many people and who will be there. Be specific about social pleasantries – keep them simple and be clear about what’s expected of the child not just at the onset (shake hands and say “hi”), but also as the event unfolds. Plan what your child should say if he does not want to talk or dislikes food being served.
Designate a safe place and relaxing activity: Plan ahead for a place where she can go to retreat and relax. Be sure to bring along a favorite activity she can play alone and calming devices such as sensory toys or music.
Create a secret code. Pick a simple gesture or even a code-word that he can use as a signal if he begins to feel angry, anxious or overwhelmed. That’s your cue to step in and help when he’s unable to verbally express the need.
Prepare an event book. Make a book with pictures that show the place you’re going, where you’ll stay, and activities you’ll pursue while there. If you’re staying at home, the same concept can be used to prepare your child for visitors (photos of relatives), changes in routine, and decorations (include a photo of last year’s Christmas tree). Include extra blank pages for photos of this year’s activities. Involve your child in taking pictures this year, as much as his ability and interest dictates.
Maintain the routine. As much as possible, maintain her normal daily routine. Create a schedule showing not just which parts will change, but the regular routines that will remain the same. Knowing some things won’t change can be very important to your child.
Include friends and family. Make sure everyone knows about your child’s socialization, sensory, communication and dietary challenges. Ask them to honor your child’s request to stop talking, not to hug, or her need to be alone. Step in and kindly but firmly handle the relative who insists that “an itty bitty little huggie isn’t going to hurt him.”
It’s up to parents and family to give our kids with autism the tools they need to succeed. Helping them anticipate changes and cope with new expectations goes a long way toward reducing anxiety and building memories of joy.
This article is taken with permission from www.autismdigest.com, where readers can go online and, by signing in, can access free copies of the magazine’s eGuide, which is packed full of more information on holidays and gift giving for children on the spectrum.