Handling Holiday Events with Autistic Kids

Photo: Thanksgiving DinnerThe holidays are stressful for almost everyone, but the hectic schedule and social demands can be especially overwhelming for people with autism and their families. Early planning can help relieve some of this stress to make the holidays a more joyful time of year.

Ways to Optimize Holiday Social Events for People with Autism

Use visual supports, such as lists, written words, drawings, photographs and objects, to help your child understand the things she will see this season. Show your child pictures of Christmas trees, for example, or have her write a list of gifts she would like to receive. Social stories, which are written or visual guides that describe various social situations, interactions, situations, behaviors or concepts, can also help kids with autism understand the traditions and rituals of the holidays.

Use a calendar to show when your children can expect parties and gifts, especially if you are celebrating holidays on more than one day. Other visual supports can help you prepare for especially complicated days.

Practice makes perfect

The tradition of giving and receiving gifts is substantially more complicated than it seems. There is an appropriate time to open gifts, for example, and a proper way to react to a present. Practice ahead of a gift-giving event by giving your child a wrapped package and a small reward for keeping it intact. Teach your child to thank the person who gave the gift.

Hold off on putting gifts – especially very large packages – under the tree or out for display until just before the holiday.

Rehearse social situations ahead of time. Use role-playing to give children an opportunity to practice meeting new friends and interacting with others. Introduce various elements of a holiday social situation, such as music, decorations and new friends, into your make-believe event. Practice unwrapping gifts to help children with autism learn how to remove the wrapping paper. Practice time also gives you an opportunity to help your child understand the meaning of gifts.

Reinforce table manners during practice. Dole out small portions and make it clear that another person’s plate is strictly off limits. Consider plating food in the kitchen rather than serving it family style in large bowls if you have an over-excited eater.

Practice meeting Santa, whose red suit, long beard and jolly laugh can be a bit overwhelming to a person with autism. Teach your child about Santa Claus by watching videos and singing songs.

Attend holiday celebrations with other Houston families who have a family member with autism. These venues give your child a chance to practice interacting with others at holiday events.

Celebrating with the Family

When visiting family or friends, make sure there is a quiet place where a child can retreat. Watch for signs of distress or anxiety, such as humming or rocking, which may indicate that it is time for a break in the quiet zone.

Encourage everyone to engage in repetitive activities, such as stringing popcorn to trim the tree. This gives those with autism an opportunity to shine in a holiday tradition.

Some families take turns opening gifts. If your family opens gifts one at a time, reduce frustration and disorganization by passing an ornament to the next person to open a present. This acts as a visual cue to let your child know when it is nearly time to open a package.

Sharing can be difficult for a child with autism. Prepare your child for the possibility that he will have to share a new toy with a relative or friend. Consider use the quiet space if your child has a tendency to grab toys from other children.

Minimize table decorations during Thanksgiving and other holiday meals. Avoid scented candles and splashy décor to reduce sensory input at the table.

Take pictures of your child as she trims the tree, opens gifts, visits relatives, and participates in other social events at the holidays. Glue the printed pictures onto paper to make a book then write a caption for each picture. This visual support will help your child understand the holiday traditions, tell others about her holiday adventures, and help her remember and use these experiences during the holidays next year.

For more information about helping your child navigate social situations in Houston around the holidays, reach out to Behavior TLC.  We’re happy to help make your holidays more joyful and less stressful!  Call 281-606-0364 for a consultation today!