By Ashleigh Evans, MS, BCBA
‘Tis the season for joy and excitement. Perhaps a bit of stress and chaos too. October through December can be exhausting for many families. With holidays back to back, it can be challenging to maintain a comfortable routine. Children with autism tend to thrive on structure and routine, making these months particularly challenging. Rest assured, there are strategies you can take to prepare your child and your family for these major upcoming changes.
Sudden or unexpected changes are often the most difficult for children with autism to cope with. When children are primed in advance for the upcoming holidays, this can greatly improve their response when the holiday events come along.
Holiday preparation strategies might include any number of the following:
- Talk to your child often about the holidays and specifically what activities you all will be doing. For example, you might focus on Thanksgiving, discussing how you’ll be going to dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s house that day.
- Read social stories and/or books about the holiday and associated events. Social stories are great for outlining and reviewing exactly what the plans and expectations are.
- Create a visual countdown or a calendar that shows when the holidays are to serve as a visual reminder of the upcoming events. Prompt your child to reference this visual each day as you discuss the upcoming holiday.
- Make backup plans in case things don’t go quite as planned.
- Prepare a holiday bag with any supports your child might need. Depending on what their individual needs are, this bag might include things such as noise-reducing headphones, fidgets, or weighted vests.
- Ensure your child has a way to safely escape if the setting becomes too overwhelming. For example, establish a dedicated location where they can go to calm down at each holiday event.
Maintain consistency where possible
With so much out of the ordinary during the holidays, it’s a good idea to try to avoid unnecessary major changes during these times. This isn’t always possible as life can be unpredictable. However, to whatever degree possible, maintain a consistent routine for your family.
With each holiday, there is an abundance of possible ways to celebrate, from large family gatherings and public outings to independent activities. The ways we celebrate holidays are often tied to sentimental family traditions. As such, it can be challenging to branch off from those activities that are special to us. It may, however, be helpful to prioritize the activities that are most important and most enjoyable to you and your family. If a particular holiday tradition historically causes more stress than enjoyment, consider alternative activities you can try that may be just as special to your family. Take your child’s preferences into consideration when planning events as well.
Sometimes our best-laid plans simply don’t work out. We might think our child can handle a new activity this year, but it still turns out to be overstimulating for them. Try to go into the holidays with a flexible mindset. If things don’t go quite as planned, have a backup plan prepared for alternative activities.
Recognize the progress, no matter how small
Focus on the victories, whether great or small. Holidays can be both magical and taxing on the whole family. Don’t forget to take the time to acknowledge the growth that your child has made. Happy holidays to all!
About the Author
Ashleigh Evans, MS, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She has been practicing in the behavior analysis field for over 13 years and opened her own independent practice in early 2022. Her experience has been vast across different age groups, diagnoses, and needs. She is passionate about improving the field through education, reformative action, and better supervisory practices, leading her to create content and resources for families and ABA professionals which can be found on her website, www.evansbehavioralservices.com/.