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Keeping a happy and healthy vibe going during the holiday season is no small feat, especially if you have a child with autism. The hectic whirlwind of social activities, family gatherings, festive food, and shopping extravaganzas that many people look forward to can be overwhelming and challenging for your child with autism. However, you can support your child in having a positive holiday experience by creating structure and routine that leaves plenty of time for fun. Let’s look at why the holiday season can be so challenging for children on the spectrum and how you can make this season as stress-free as possible This way everyone can focus on what really matters – giving and receiving love.
Why Is Structure & Routine So Important for Children with Autism?
Routines are predictable and, for the most part, within your control. Predictability and control can help your child feel safe. Although the holidays are a special time, they can be a massive disruption to your carefully crafted routines. Without the routines, your child may be overwhelmed by the anticipation of what’s coming next. When the holidays come around, a lack of routine will make it more difficult for those kids to calm down and relax because they have no idea when certain things will happen.
Children with autism often experience the world differently than others. In addition to communication, social skills, and attention span challenges, they may have heightened sensitivity to certain stimuli. Unexpected sights, sounds, and smells can be overstimulating, and the added stress of family gatherings, gift exchanges, and lots of new people can make them feel out of control. This can lead to meltdowns and impulsive behaviors. Preparing for this busy time of year is essential by setting up a structured routine to help them through the celebrations.
Create a schedule and routine
During the holidays, it’s especially important to make time for relaxation, rest, and social activities. You can build a routine that accommodates these things, even though they are not necessarily the focus all year round. Routines give kids with autism a sense of security and help them manage their feelings and behaviors. So, they will need time to prepare for anything outside of the norm.
There are some practical ways to ease the potential stress the holidays place on your child. By including your child with autism in holiday preparations, you can help them understand the significance of the holiday and feel more comfortable with any family gatherings.
If your child struggles with crowds or loud noises, a large family gathering may overwhelm them quickly. You can provide a space where your child can escape the crowds and noise. This will be much easier if you are at home but if you have to be elsewhere, try to arrange a quiet space before the event.
How Can We Help Kids with Autism Through Transitions?
Transitions happen throughout the day and include many aspects of our daily lives, such as leaving the house, preparing meals, or attending activities outside the home. Although they bring about change, they are still a part of the routine. For example, leaving home to go to school is a transition, but it happens as a part of the daily routine and is expected.
Unfortunately, kids with autism tend to have difficulty with transitions, whether from one place to another or task to another. Even if it is a part of their routine, it can still be challenging. There are ways to soften the blow, which is especially necessary when the overall routine is disrupted by the holidays.
Visual schedules are a tool that can help kids with autism stay on track with their day and alert them to upcoming changes. This can be as simple as writing a schedule on a board at home that shows activities planned for the day.
Consistency and predictability are key to helping your child prepare for future transitions and get used to their current environment. A consistent schedule will help them get used to the flow of the day and build positive associations with certain activities.
Practical tips and ideas for transitioning a child with autism:
Redirect Their Attention
When your child is getting worked up or displaying warning signs of an impending meltdown, redirect their attention away from whatever is causing their frustration and onto something else. There are many different ways to shift a child’s attention. You can try offering them a snack, giving them a toy to play with, taking them outside for fresh air, or simply engaging them in conversation. Anything that will take their mind off the thing that’s stressing them out.
Use A Transition Object Or Visual
A child can hold onto or have a transition object or visuals near them to help them cope with change. For some kids, having a special item that goes with them through transitions can help to soothe their anxiety and make them feel more secure. If your child doesn’t have a special item they use, you can try getting them one. You can develop these transition tools and adapt them to fit your child’s age and interests. Visual support can be created using photos to provide predictability and familiarity as the child transitions to new places or areas. A young child can be given an object that represents the next activity, such as a book for reading time or a mat to sit on for circle time. Likewise, certain songs can be associated with specific tasks, such as cleaning up or starting or ending the day, through music signaling a transition.
Limit Loud & Distracting Outings
A child with autism may have difficulty processing many sensory inputs, including information from his surroundings. Limit your daily outings, and ensure you know what to expect wherever you go. If it is a particularly loud, busy place, you can be prepared with diversions. Simple distractions, such as a noise-canceling headset, earphones with music, or an audiobook can prevent the stress before it starts. A book or tablet can be your child’s focus instead of everything going on around them.
Plan your time carefully, so you have plenty of time for family time, relaxation and self-care. Keep your home clean and organized. This way, your child will have fewer sensory issues to focus on.
Schedule Extra Time
When creating a morning routine with your child, give them extra time to get ready, so there is less pressure.
One of the most important things you can do to support your child’s autism is to stay consistent. This is important in all aspects of life, especially when it comes to routines. If you make a change to your routine or schedule, make sure to explain why.
While holidays can be challenging, you can create an environment where your child can focus on enjoying the festivities without worrying about what is happening around them. Keep your child engaged in crafts, music, and storytelling activities; you can help them feel more in control and less overwhelmed. You can also include your child in home-based activities like cooking, cleaning, and ensuring everyone gets their chores done.
Circle Care Services is an ABA service provider that serves children with autism and their families. We are ready to help your child develop social and behavioral skills so that your child can enjoy all of the wonderful things you and your family have planned for this holiday season and all the holidays to come. Sign up for our newsletter to find out more or receive more tips!