(image courtesy of www.michellezelli.com)
Casey Burgess is the Director of Full Spectrum Learning, providing educational, behavioural, cognitive, and social support to individuals with ASD and learning differences in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. www.fullspectrumlearning.ca
The holiday season can be stressful for parents, with last minute shopping trips, hosting and attending parties and family gatherings, and travel preparations. Imagine the stress on children with autism spectrum disorders who thrive on routine and predictability! Imagine the sensory, processing, and executive functioning required as well as the high social demand. While children with these challenges thrive in structured environments, not only do they deal with changes, but those who best support them are in a midst of UNstructure.
Children with sensory challenges may be overwhelmed by the increased lights, sights, sounds and smells during the holidays, a stress which can impact everyone in the family. While we can't always gear an entire family to the needs of one child (nor should we), we can add in supports to help.
We can use visuals (lists or pictures in a photo album) to prepare children for upcoming events, so their environment is more predictable. Let them know about family visits and upcoming parties (at your house orr elsewhere) through a simple weekly calendar. For children that can tell time, include this information. For those who can't, you may be able to draw what the clock will look like, so when the clocks match, it's time to go. Plan extra time for each event as running over can cause problems for children with less flexibility.
Letting family members (including siblings) know how to help can be a great support. Reminders for siblings of their brother/sister's needs (sensory, communication, etc) can help. Explanations of both how to help proactively and what to avoid can be huge in preventing overload. Provide lots of attention and reinforcement for supportive siblings and family members.
Wherever you plan to be, see if you can arrange a relaxing area where your child can escape the enviromnent if needed and let your child use it - perhaps even bringing a bag of familiar toys and relaxation activities (and your relaxation visuals) can help bridge this transition.
Holiday shopping is stressful for most - tack on sensory processing difficulties and we are talking anxiety levels that may surprise you. Stores are noisy, people are brushing against each other, there are phenomenal amount of extraneous decorations and advertisements, and an unknown man in a red suit ringing a bell and talking to you, and this is against every rule you have been taught!
Go armed with organization. Tell your child where you will go and for what, and for how long - USE A VISUAL to share this. Make a list of what you will get, go directly there (ask your child for help finding the item), and don't browse. Save browsing for child-less times like lunch hour. Take less busy routes through malls, even if it means more walking from the car. Give lots and lots and LOTS of reinforcement right from the beginning for following along and for taking deep calming breaths every 5 or 10 minutes. Bring along a fidget toy to play with if there is waiting time in lineups. Allow your child to listen to headphones while you shop to drown out all the noises.
Create stories / scripts of what the expectations are for your child during the holidays. Consider the hidden curriculum, or the unwritten rules of the holidays. For example, write a story about the Christmas Eve preparations and why we do that, about how to appropriately greet guests or hosts, or about how to politely say thank-you for each gift opened even if you already have one or even if you don't like it so that the person giving the gift will be happy (it's ok to tell Mom or Dad after you have gone home). You get the picture - consider all those little social nuances that are part of the holidays.
Remember - Don't expect perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect holiday. Simply strive to be flexible and make the best of each situation. Remember to enjoy yourself, your family, and your children over the holidays. That's what matters!
Please visit http://www.fullspectrumlearning.ca/visuals-bank.html for some visuals you can print - adapt them to meet your needs. Use the drop down menu to select areas of focus.
What are some of the things you have found helpful as a parent or supporter during the holidays?
Casey Burgess has a B.Sc.in Psychology, an M.A. in Education (Curriculum and Instruction), and a Ph.D. in progress in Education (Cognition and Learning). She has 20 years experience with direct service, curriculum development, workshop facilitation, and supervisory experience supporting children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, and their families. She currently frames her work using a developmental, relationship-based, self-regulation lens.