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Structured Strategies During the Holiday Season


With the holiday season comes both excitement and stress. Changes in schedule, time off from work and school, travel, parties, visiting relatives, special foods, special clothes, shopping and decorations are just some of the reasons that this time of year can be especially difficult for kids with autism and their parents.

How did your family, your child with autism, handle the Thanksgiving holiday? If there were some rough moments or meltdowns—what did you learn from them? What did your child’s behavior communicate? Taking time to think about it now might help you see where adjustments can be made so that your child can cope and enjoy himself next time. What do structured teaching strategies look like at home during the winter holidays?

Remember—think visual.

Start with a calendar. Include on the calendar any travel dates, places you’ll be visiting and when you will arrive back home. If you are going to be staying in the home of relatives, or if they will be visiting you, communicate with them in advance. Be an autism ambassador.

Will your furniture need to be rearranged to allow for holiday decorations? Try drawing a floor plan and allow your child to help with the changes in whatever way he can.

Social stories can share family traditions with your child in advance. Draw pictures using thinking clouds and speech bubbles to help your child understand what others might be thinking about and for scripting responses to holiday greetings.

Don’t forget to use a flexible daily schedule to let your child know the general sequence of events each day. Sometimes parents resist using a schedule because of the possibility that a change will arise, however, most of our kids can handle change better than they can handle not knowing.

Which brings me to a sensitive issue. Not all children love surprises. In fact, for some of our kids, a wrapped gift that they must wait to open provokes tremendous anxiety. It isn’t fun anymore. One wise mother redefined success, allowing for her child’s anxiety issues. Not only did her child see what his gift would be, he helped wrap it! The calendar was marked for the big day and he could enjoy the anticipation without the anxiety of not knowing.

Remember that rich holiday sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming for a kid with ASD. With a little forethought you can temper sensory bombardment (earplugs, headphones, chewing gum, favorite leisure activity, etc.). Create a quiet place and give your child permission to retreat whenever necessary. Explain to your guests the need to safeguard your child’s sanctuary.

Most importantly, be reasonable in your expectations. Do not compare yourself and your family with others or with the “ideal” family that is often portrayed at holiday time. Stay balanced, keep things in perspective, get support and make time for yourself.

Kathy Dolbee is a former Autism Resource Specialist for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

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