December is a busy time of the year for most families, as the year winds down while activities and plans wind up. We all make plans and attend engagements so that we can enjoy cherished time with family and friends. However, it is important to be mindful of the effect of holiday activities, changes in routines/predictability, and parental stress have on your child with autism. Here are some general tips to try this year to help your child navigate the holidays and have a more enjoyable with loved ones.
- Use a visual schedule to visually present upcoming events. This can be in the form of a monthly/weekly calendar or a daily schedule, that clearly informs when each planned activity will happen. A visual schedule helps increase predictability by providing information on upcoming events, which leads to reduced anxiety in some kids. You can incorporate pictures to aid understanding, and add stickers or favorite characters to boost the appeal of the schedule.
- Scope out the event/location before hand to consider environmental factors that will increase your child’s successful participation. If your child is invited to a party at an indoor gym (e.g., bounce castle, kid’s climbing gym, etc.,) drop by the venue first to find out what kinds of supports and potential barriers may be present. If it is a place with loud music and lots of echoing, you will want to consider a mitigating strategy if noise is something that bothers your child. Knowing more about the event/venue before hand will help you with the next tip.
- Preview an event with your child. You can do this either by writing a story that outlines the event or practice attending the event via role play. Which approach you choose will depend on your child’s interest and learning style. Important topics to cover during the preview include how the event will likely unfold, what they can expect to see/happen at the event, what people will likely do, specific skills that he/she will be expected to use (e.g., turn-taking, staying with the group, etc.,) and general rules and expectations at the event. It will be helpful to rehearse an event with your child multiple times across a few days because practice helps all of us!
- Before the event, clearly define and remind your child again of the rules and expectations, as well as other aspects practiced in the preview sessions. You can also consider using a token economy during the event, if it is something that your child is already familiar with and have had success using in the past. A well-implemented token economy will at least have the following core traits – clear criteria for earning tokens during the event, an adequate rate of reinforcement, and a motivating reinforcer to exchange tokens for. If a token economy is not something your child is familiar or successful with, it is best not to introduce it during a new event.
- During the event, build in choices and breaks if needed. Providing choices is a simple and effective way to increase sense of control, participation, and enjoyment. Choices do not have to be monumental; studies have shown that something as simple as which seat to sit at, or which task to do first, can increase an individual’s participation in an event. So before you tell your child to do something at an event, think to yourself – are there viable alternatives that I can present? If so, go ahead and present options and have him/her decide how to enjoy the event! Sometimes, a child may become overwhelmed or tire of an activity while it’s going on. This is okay. If your child is not yet ready to tell you when he/she needs a break from the event, it will be up to you to monitor behavior/physical indications that a break may be needed. Being mindful of these signs will allow you to act proactively and offer your child a break from the events when appropriate. Also remember, it is okay to end the event early if your child is not ready to return after a break. Successful, albeit short, participation at an event ensure that you and your child enjoyed the event and are solid building blocks to successful future events!
Although the above tips come in extra handy during busy times of the year, they are in fact effective strategies to prepare a child for any new experiences or changes in routines. As always, it is a good idea to consult with a professional (e.g., BCBA, psychologist) so these strategies can be individualized to best work for your child.
Through the hustle and bustle of holiday plans and events, it’s easy to forget but important to keep in mind what it’s all about – celebrating and showing your love and appreciation for all whom you cherish!
Happy Holidays to All!
Photo by Pietro De Grandi on Unsplash