The 2015 holiday season is officially here! And we begin our preparations to spend time with loved ones and partake in holiday events. The holiday season can be a stressful time of the year for everyone, but it can be especially challenging for an individual with an autism spectrum disorder. A little advanced planning and the following proactive strategies can help to decrease a loved ones’ anxiety and enhance their holiday experience with the whole family.
- Keep the individual’s behavioral and sensory profile in mind when planning holiday events. For example, how will they respond to specific traditions? How long can they tolerate being seated at the table? Will they be able to tolerate noise levels? Do they have any sensitivities to specific foods, sounds, people, pets, etc.?
- Prepare for the environment where the event will take place. If the event is outside of your home, consider designating a specific area for them to use in case they need some time away to decompress. Holiday events can be overwhelming and there may be too much sensory stimulation for the individual.
- Prepare family members, especially children, of the individual’s needs and what they can do to help. Teach them some easy communication strategies. Communication is key!
- Prior to any holiday event, set aside some time to practice sitting at the table as it would be the day of the gathering. This can include adjusting the lighting of the room, playing music, etc. If the individual uses a schedule, begin to incorporate a picture or text of the holiday event into their schedule during practice time. Make sure to provide reinforcement during and right after practice time.
- Expose the individual to holiday food before the family gathering, in order to see what they do and do not like. This allows the individual to become more comfortable with the food offered the day of the event. Provide reinforcement if they try any new foods (e.g., a piece of their favorite food for trying a new food). Be prepared to bring or make foods which the individual enjoys so they can still participate at the table with the rest of the family in the event that their food repertoire is limited.
- Set aside some activities that the individual likes if you know they will find the holiday event unpleasant, and/or if they have a short attention span. If the individual cannot tolerate loud noises, consider allowing them to wear headphones or build in breaks away from everything throughout the event.
- When decorating your home for the holidays, consider doing so in gradual steps. Individuals with autism often thrive in predictable environments, and may not transition well when there are sudden changes in their routine and/or environment. Changing your home’s appearance in one day may be overwhelming to some. Give the individual an opportunity to help by allowing them to manipulate the decorations (as long as it is safe to do so) and help put them up. You can also give them an activity, such as stringing popcorn, together to hang on the tree.
- Think about the individual’s sensitivity to lights if they have one. You can take them to a holiday themed store prior to decorating your home and observe their reactions. If the lights seem unpleasant, think about alternative decorations.
- If the individual is at risk for putting things in their mouth (e.g., pine needles) or breaking ornaments, consider alternatives such as an artificial tree, placing the tree out of reach, plastic ornaments, etc.
- Keep in mind the individual’s fine motor skills and practice opening presents if necessary. Use pictures on the gifts instead of name tags to recognize who the gift givers are.
- If the individual comprehends the use of a calendar, use this as a tool to countdown the days until the event. This will offer greater predictability in preparation for the event.
- Make sure to reinforce appropriate behaviors throughout the event!
- If the individual uses an augmentative form of communication (e.g., iPad or PECS book), make sure they have it with them at all times. Communication is very important! Also, reinforce spontaneous attempts to communicate.
- Schedule an early dinner or eat before the event if this will assist the individual.
- Assign activities and tasks that the individual can handle so they can participate in some way (e.g., setting the table, cleaning up, playing with other children if age appropriate).
- Keep an eye on precursor behaviors that may lead the individual to engage in maladaptive behaviors and intervene accordingly. For example, ask them if they need a break or take them for a walk.
Most importantly have fun and enjoy the holidays!!!!!!!
Rocio Chavez, MA., MSEd., LBA is currently the Assistant Director for the Quality Services for the Autism Community’s (QSAC) After School Programs. She also facilitates a social skills group for children with high functioning autism and a sibling support group. Rocio holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Behavioral Applications from Queens College, and a dual master’s degree in General and Special Education, Birth-Grade 2 from Touro College. Rocio is also a licensed behavior analyst. She has provided clinical consultations in school and home based settings, and most recently provided consultation for the Broadway play The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime. Rocio has also assisted in designing staff training and student curriculum and has co-authored a chapter in the book Behavioral Detectives: A Staff Training Exercise Book in Applied Behavior Analysis. She has presented on various topics including stimulus-stimulus pairing and reinforcer assessments at The New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA) convention as well as The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) convention. Rocio has conducted research on self-management training in preschoolers with autism and stimulus-stimulus pairing. She has worked with children and young adults on the autism spectrum for over ten years.