Vickie Dieter is an Autism Resource Specialist in the Catawba Valley region and mom to a son with autism.
Many families who have children and other family members with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have a collection of war stories and battle scars (emotional and physical) associated with the holiday season. Children, youth, and adults with autism who already struggle with over-stimulation, change, and disruption are bombarded with a barrage of sights, smells, sounds, schedule changes, and challenging social situations during the holidays. While many families enjoy the holidays and find these sensory and social experiences exciting and pleasurable, they can cause increased anxiety and discomfort for people with ASD. But, as difficult as the season can be, the holidays offer unique learning opportunities for teaching your child coping, social, and academic skills.
The holidays were not pleasant for our child and family, especially during his first six years or so. I remember feeling helpless and desperate to do SOMETHING to make the holidays more tolerable. It helped me when I was able to shift my focus beyond the difficulties associated with the holidays and take a proactive approach to help my son have successful, positive experiences. Focusing my efforts on pinpointing the root of my son’s behaviors and researching strategies to help him cope in difficult situations helped me gain a sense of control. The perception I had of our family as prisoners of our son’s disability changed when the strategies I tried with him began to have positive results. Over time, my son became more and more engaged in holiday activities, and our family has enjoyed many traditions and celebrations with family and friends.
I hope the following ideas will help your child and family share a more meaningful and positive holiday experience:
Use visual images, objects, videos, songs, and foods associated with the holidays to explain abstract concepts and deeper meanings of holiday traditions and religious beliefs.
Use a nativity set to help your child understand the meaning of Christmas.
A dreidel can be used to explain a historical element of Hanukah.
Turkey, corn, and other foods (pictures, real food, or play food) can be used to represent the pilgrims and Native Americans coming together for the first Thanksgiving.
Incorporate the Kinara, a visual symbol of African history and heritage in discussions about Kwanzaa.
Help your child understand what other people are thinking and feeling through the use of social stories, books, and videos.
For example, the characters in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas have exaggerated facial expressions that can make it easier for children to identify the characters’ feelings. When reading this book with your child, help him or her make the connection between the characters’ facial expressions and what they are feeling. Use the context of the story to discuss the reasons that the characters feel happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc. Talk about how the characters’ actions affect the feelings and thoughts of others in the story.
Use your child’s preferred interests to engage him or her in holiday activities.
For example, for a child who has a strong interest in tornados, you might modify The Night Before Christmas story to include a tornado that interferes with Santa’s flight from the North Pole.
If your child has an intense interest in flags, try to engage him or her in a game to match flags to their respective countries. Explore holiday traditions and practices of each country and compare how your family’s traditions and beliefs are alike or different from people in other countries.
Use holiday symbols and images to promote academic skills.
Sort unbreakable ornaments by color, shape, type, or category.
Label holiday items throughout your home with words written on sticky notes or post cards, e.g. Santa, tree, pumpkin, candle, gift, Zawadi, gelt.
Practice addition and subtraction using holiday objects as manipulatives.
Work on sequencing with pictures, objects, stories, etc. Drawing or building a snowman is a fun visual sequencing activity.
Strategies to teach coping skills
Employ strategies that have worked for your child in the past but are no longer necessary under normal circumstances. For example, if your child responded well to the use of visuals but has “outgrown” the need for them, consider trying visual schedules, cues, or gestures again to help him or her understand and prepare for unexpected, unfamiliar, or overwhelming situations.
Coping with sensory overload and changes in routine can be exhausting and stressful for individuals with ASD. Try to pay attention to “warning” signs that your child is feeling tired, anxious, or frustrated and use this opportunity to help him or her learn to ask for a break through the use of visual and verbal prompts, redirection, or calming strategies. Ask your child’s teacher what type of behavior management system is used in the classroom and try to use that familiar system or a modified version in other settings. The Autism Society of North Carolina Bookstore has some great books and videos about using visual supports to help your child recognize and manage his or her feelings and behavior. The Incredible 5 Point Scale is one of my personal favorites.
Learn to recognize when your child has had enough. All of the tricks in the book probably won’t help once your child reaches the dreaded point of no return – parents, you know what I’m talking about.
Tags: autism, autism holidays, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorders, holiday stress, holiday tips for families with autism, visual structure