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Surviving the Holidays by Dr. Tyra Sellers

The following blog was written by Tyra Sellers, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Regional Director with Trumpet Behavioral Health.

Tyra Sellers, PhD, BCBA-D
Tyra Sellers, PhD, BCBA-D

Festive music, sparkling lights, crowds of people, smells of pine and cinnamon, favorite foods and drinks, enjoying the company of not oft seen relatives and friends – these are some of the joys that accompany the Holiday Season.  However, for individuals with autism, those very things can be stressful and overwhelming.  Especially when paired with changes in routines, stressed out family members, and expectations to behave even better than usual under the most demanding and least practiced of conditions.  Okay, now pause and take a really deep breath.  There are some things that you can do as the Holidays approach that can help alleviate some of the stress and increase everyone’s enjoyment of the festivities.

When decorating the house consider doing it a little bit at a time, over a week or so, starting with favorite items, allowing your child to increase his or her tolerance gradually.  If adding decorations is very difficult, consider adding in specific reinforcement (e.g., praise, a small treat, 5 minutes extra computer time) for each new decoration added.

If possible, enlist your child as a helper, allowing him or her to choose the items, locations, and/or help put them up.  If your child loves art, get him or her to pitch in by making some decorations.  If the primary concern is not getting the decorations up, but getting them to stay, you may need to specifically teach and reward leaving the decorations alone (same goes for not unwrapping every gift that comes into the house).  Have your child sit, or walk by, decorations and reward him or her for leaving them alone.  Practice at other peoples’ homes and stores, if possible.  Enlist teachers to work on this as well.

Be sure to prepare your child as much as possible, in the way that works best for him or her.

For example, using a calendar or other visual representation, works well for many children with autism.  List upcoming activities and events, using clear, descriptive words.  For individuals who cannot read, make simple drawings, or use stickers or photos to represent the locations and events.  Describe what things will take place at each event, review behavior expectations, and discuss who will be there.  It may be helpful to put together a photo album of people, with their names printed below, to increase familiarity.  If new and different places are very difficult, visit them ahead of time if possible.  This will increase familiarity, provide concrete information for talking about the upcoming

event, and allow you and your child to formulate contingency plans (like identifying where the bathroom is, a quiet place to go, or where to go if you get separated).

Since practice makes perfect (or something like that), practice specific holiday related skills.

If your child is not interested in opening presents you can try addressing this by doing things like: placing a highly preferred familiar item in the box or bag, teaching smiling and surprised facial expressions during unwrapping, and using specific reinforcement for opening a package.  Other tips include: gently wrapping for easy opening, avoid ribbons, using wrapping paper with favorite characters or stickers, and wrapping in clear containers (e.g., cellophane).  If you will expect your child to wear unfamiliar clothing, like a suit, dress, or special sweater knitted by Aunt Bessie, practice wearing it ahead of time.  Unfamiliar textures may need a bit of time to get used to.  Practicing other things, like social greetings (e.g., shaking hands, giving hugs, saying “Happy Holidays” etc.), appropriate conversations, taking pictures, sharing toys, saying “No Thank You,” and asking you quietly for a break, can be helpful as well.

Surviving outings and events requires a lot of pre-planning.

Go when it is not crowded and break up shopping trips over several days.  Make a visual schedule and alternate preferred locations with not-so preferred, saving the best location or activity for last.  While in the stores, have your child help find needed items, do a scavenger hunt, or allow him or her to bring in a favorite item (e.g., toy, book, video game, iPad) to have, as long as he or she is behaving appropriately.  For events and trips to other peoples’ houses be clear about how long you will be there and how many times your child can ask, “When are we leaving?”  If you are able to identify a quiet spot for your child, or if your child likes to take breaks and go for walks, be sure to offer breaks right after your child has done something awesome (like letting a cousin play with a new toy).  Try not to wait until your child is overwhelmed or displaying problem behaviors to take a break.  It may be helpful to schedule breaks (e.g., 10 minutes with family, 20 minutes of break).  Pack favorite activities and snacks, or special food, and go early, before it gets too crowded.  When choosing favorite activities to bring, get a few new favorites (if possible), or withhold

some old favs for a few days to increase the value of the items.  If possible, families may want to take two cars, so someone can easily leave early with your child (preferable before any problem behavior occurs) and the rest of family can stay.

Finally, communicate with others involved in your child’s life.

Let family members know a few preferred gifts to get and how to wrap the gifts.  Inform them ahead of time of things that might cause discomfort or embarrassment.  For example, if your child does not like to hug, gently let family members know that, and suggest a high five instead.  If your child has a very difficult time with
crowds or noise and you are going to someone’s home, find out ahead of time if there is a quiet space where you can set up a DVD player or books so your child will have a quiet retreat to go to throughout the event.  Many individuals

with autism have strong food preferences and aversions, or are on special diets.  If that is the case for your child, contact family members ahead of time and ask if you can bring a dish or two that will meet the needs of your child.  No one will mind if chicken nuggets are on the buffet table among the turkey, ham and sweet potato casserole!  Or, let your family know that your child will already have eaten.  If waiting to eat is difficult, bring small snacks that your child can have while waiting.

Above all, remember to breathe, treat yourself to some rewards too, and make time to enjoy your child and family during the holidays.  I wish you success and happiness for the Holidays and all the years to come!