- Autism & Developmental Services
By: Tara Karen, M.S. Ed, BCBA, LBA
For many, the holidays represent a time of love, family, giving, joy, and excitement. For those with children with developmental disabilities, it can also mean an increase in stress and chaos. Time off of school, change in routines, unstructured time, addition of family visitors, and sensory overload are all potential stressors for our children. In order to help your child(ren) prepare for this holiday season, here are a few tips to keep in mind!
Try to keep some routines: Even if you are traveling or have family over, try to keep a few routines for your child so that they can have some structure still. Keeping the same morning or evening routines, lunch time, etc. can help your child remain familiar with some of their day.
Plan ahead: If your child gets anxious and perseverates on events, try to notify them only a few days in advance of big events. If your child needs time and preparation to adjust to a schedule change, try using a visual reminder such as a calendar and count the days until a holiday event.
Reinforce Behavior: Set clear and consistent expectations of their behavior before the event, and then praise or reward your child often for following those expectations. A holiday token board with a small reward could be used for those who need visual reminders. For instance, explain to your child that at Grandma’s house we don’t hit, we ask mom or dad for my time if we need to be alone, and we don’t take toys from our family. Every time your child follows these rules, reinforce with a token for a reward to be given at the end of the visit.
Practice: Practice having a holiday dinner, or giving/opening presents with others, or sitting in church. Use social stories, role-playing, and modeling to show what behaviors you would like your child to demonstrate. Make sure to praise your child often and give behavior-specific praise (“I love that you said please!” or “Look how nicely you gave that present to me!”).
Find a safe/calm space and teach your child how to access it: If possible, designate a space where your child can go if they are overwhelmed and provide some calming activities (soft music, dim lights, stress ball, Chewy tube, etc.). Do not make this a space that is exciting to go to (unrestricted iPad access), because your child may just want to stay in the room the whole time. Instead, this should be a space to go when they are overwhelmed, and when they are ready, have them return to the event. Practice cues and requesting this space before your event so that your child is able to request it (vocally, with a picture card, or having them walk you there).
Prepare a social story or photo album: Sometimes children (and adults) can get anxious not knowing who is coming or what they will be doing. If possible, create a photo album of years past or families members coming so that your child can view them and you can discuss who is coming, where you are going, etc. You can also use a phone/iPad to create a video social story of an unfamiliar place- do a walkthrough and talk about what you will be doing so that your child can “experience” it before it happens. If you are traveling via airplane, there are social stories online that may help your child prepare for the trip too.
Bring familiar items if traveling: Bring your child’s favorite snacks, books, toys with you so they have familiar and comforting objects with them. If you are going out, see if in advance you can get familiar foods made or bring them with you so your child will have some options.
Give choices: With the chaotic nature of the holidays, and very packed schedules, make sure to give your child choices, so that they feel involved and that they have a options. Even if it is a small, inconsequential choice for you, it can mean a lot to your child!
Listen to your child: Pay attention to their vocal and body language, look for any behaviors that may indicate stress, and prepare an exit plan if necessary. Let relatives know if your child does not like being touched, or what to do if they become upset.
Enjoy your time with your child and family: Most importantly, remember that this time of year is about family and joy, so make sure to create moments of fun for just you and your child. Be present with them by turning off your phone, TV, and electronics, and just enjoy being with them!
This time of year brings a new set of challenges with children with developmental disabilities, but with some planning, understanding, and a lot of love, you and your family will have a wonderful holiday season!
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