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9 Ways to Prepare Your Child with Autism for the Holiday Season

The holidays are often a difficult time for children with autism. Many families will gather with extended family members and loved ones during the holiday season. For a child with autism, these gatherings of unfamiliar people, places, food, and noises can create a stressful environment that differs from their daily routine expectations. Ahead of this festive time of year, there are gradual steps you can take to prepare your child and ease them into these changes so they, too, can enjoy the celebrations and gatherings.

Use Social Stories to Prime Your Child

A social story is simply a short “book” that describes what your child can anticipate in simple terms. This is something that a parent can easily create with any type of paper and pen, or even on the computer. An example of what you might include on each page could be:
          Page 1: We’re going to visit Grandma’s house on Christmas!
          Here you might include a picture of Grandma or things your child may associate with Grandma’s house so your child can visualize
          the place they’ll be visiting.
          Page 2: Aunt Debbie and Uncle Terry will be there!
          Here, include a picture of the aunt and uncle so your child can visualize who they will be seeing at Grandma’s house. Will there be
          new people they’ve never met? If so, let that be known so they aren’t caught off guard at the moment.
          Page 3: When we eat, we keep our hands to ourselves and use inside voices.
          Include a picture here that best represents this activity to your child.
          Page 4: When you’re finished eating you say, “all done!”
          Page 5: If you do a good job, you’ll get extra time to play outside!
This social story can be read together multiple times leading up to the gathering to ensure your child understands everything that was included. Every child is different; be sure to include a reward that is a reinforcer to your child for reading and listening.

Create an Outline for the Day or the Trip

Most families and children with autism have a daily routine that they follow at home. Despite the holidays creating a different layout for the day, many children with autism would prefer that their routine remains the same. By creating an outline for the day or the trip, this can help them to understand what to expect. This can help to avoid confusion and can be an effective preventative so that nothing is unexpected or upsetting to your child.

Decorate Your Home Gradually

Big or multiple changes that happen all at once or over a short period of time can be overwhelming for children with autism. Consider decorating your home little by little over a week or two. It may be helpful to show your child photos of your home decorated from previous years so they can visually see what to expect. It can also be beneficial to include your child in the purchasing of decorations as well as the decorating of your home. You could also create a schedule for which decorations will be put up on which day. For example, the tree will be put up on Saturday, the train will be put up on Sunday, etc.

Bring Toys and Activities to Occupy Time

There will typically be some downtime no matter where you go for the holidays. By bringing some of your child’s favorite toys and activities, your child will have items that they’re familiar with and bring a sense of normalcy from their everyday routine. You may also consider picking up new novel items that will excite your child and keep them occupied throughout the day or even during the trip there and back.

Factor in Travel Time

While you may not be traveling far, even a longer than average car ride could be difficult for your child. If you plan on driving longer than your child is used to, we recommend:

  1. Planning for frequent stops and bathroom breaks. Leave your family plenty of time to reach your destination so that you don’t have to rush.
  2. Bringing snacks for the ride, both familiar and new that your child may be excited to try.
  3. Downloading new apps or games on a phone or tablet that your child will find entertaining.
  4. Packing additional activities that won’t make a mess in the car such as scratch art or books.

Prepare Ahead for Mealtimes

Mealtimes often present challenges for many families, particularly if your child is unfamiliar with the food options that will be available. If others are contributing various dishes for the holiday, consider bringing a dish that you are certain your child enjoys. Encourage your child to try new foods, even if it is just one bite. Use positive reinforcement when they do try something new. You can also begin to incorporate traditional holiday foods into your meals at home ahead of the holidays so your child becomes familiar with these options. If your child will not eat anything outside of their comfort zone, you can also bring a separate meal and additional snacks to make sure they get the nutrients they need. You can even bring the plates and utensils that you use at home for more familiarity. Depending on your child’s preference, it may be best to seat them at the end of the table and seat them last so they aren’t seated and waiting for their food.

Continue Using Visual Supports and Reinforcers

If your child uses a visual support such as a visual schedule, a token board, or another reinforcement system, ensure that you continue to use this system while you’re outside of the home. For instance, if your child receives a reinforcer for successfully sitting for a certain amount of time during a meal at home, be sure to implement the same reinforcement. You may also find yourself reinforcing your child more frequently given the extra distractors that your child could experience.

Practice Opening Gifts, Giving Gifts and Taking Turns

It can be immensely helpful to role play with your child when it comes to opening gifts, giving gifts and taking turns. You can practice responses such as saying “thank you” as well. In case your child receives a gift they do not want from a loved one, it is also worthwhile to practice an appropriate response to this situation.

Have an Exit Plan 

If you sense your child is nearing a breaking point, it’s always best to have an exit plan in place to remove them from the situation before they enter full-blown meltdown mode. Take the child outside, sit in the car for a while, or consider taking the child home earlier. When visiting family further away from home, try to pre-arrange a room or place where you can take your child to calm down. Have some calming toys or activities prepared ahead of time that you know will soothe them.

We hope you find these ideas useful to incorporate into your child’s holiday plans this season and enjoy your gatherings and celebrations!

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