eNews - November 9, 2015

navigate the holidays

The evidence surrounds us, it’s the holiday season again. Halloween has just passed and Christmas decorations are up in every store. Some of us are excited to feel the changes of the season, the cool night air and the yellowed leaves all around. Others though are not as ready or excited for the change and the added stress.

Most often, the holiday season is a treasured time of year. There are winter breaks, time spent with family, decorations, holiday parties, gifts, and tons of food. Unfortunately this treasured time can be a dreaded time of the year for some. The travel, changes of schedules and routines, unfamiliar faces and food, jackets, and closed toed shoes are a few examples of why the holiday season is stressful and at times unbearable for individuals with autism and their families.Making simple additions and spending a little more time on preparation, can help make the unbearable enjoyable once again. It helps to start by recognizing that the stress is not just due to the holiday itself, but also all of the changes that happen with the season and the events leading up to these celebrations. This allows us to better assist individuals with autism with supports before the gatherings, as well as strategies for the actual event.

Below is a list of five tips to help you and your loved one successfully navigate the holiday season.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice

    • Whether it’s setting the table and waiting to start eating, or wrapping presents and waiting to unwrap the gift until given the go ahead, practicing these activities with your family member is important. Practice allows for repetition, problem solving, and teaching of the expectations.
  • Review

    • Review the holiday, the decorations, the food, the people, and the activities
      • Go through old photos from previous year’s celebrations, talk about what you see in the photos and point out any specifics your family member should expect to see again.
      • Create a small photo album with pictures of unfamiliar faces that he or she should expect to see. This will help him or her become familiar with these people before seeing them either for the first time or after a long absence.
      • When possible, record a conversation with some of these relatives, saying some phases your family member may hear them say such as Hello, How have you been, and Happy Thanksgiving. Then replay this recording, again helping your family member to be more familiar with these otherwise unfamiliar individuals.
      • Finally, consider reading through a social story created specifically for the upcoming event. This will help break down the important information as well as share what to expect and what he or she may be expected to do.
      • You can find a great Thanksgiving example on this Autism Speaks webpage, autismspeaks.org as well as some great family gathering and Christmas examples on this Positively Autism webpage, positivelyautism.com
  • Include

    • Include your family member in the preparation as much as possible. This includes decorating, shopping, and cooking. Be prepared to take extra time while doing this
      • Allowing your family member to participate helps him or her to see the changes as they are happening instead of as they walk into a completely different house overwhelmed by new decorations and smells. Give him or her time to adjust to the change in increments when possible.
      • Avoid last minute shopping which tends to be rushed. If unavoidable, walk your family member through it step by step (first we will get this… then we will…). Most important, don’t forget to bring something reinforcing to look forward to after the shopping trip is complete!
      • Finally, cook some of the new/different food items your family member will be given to eat at the celebration such as turkey or pumpkin pie.
  • Teach

    • The holidays are filled with tons of emotions and extras. Some of which are intolerable for individuals with autism, others become points of focus. Unfortunately during the holiday season and at any celebration, it becomes hard to avoid these situations and instead prompts us to teach specific skills.
      • When confronted with the often overwhelming or intolerable situation, it becomes important to figure out an exit strategy that can be used to support an individual with autism remain successful throughout the entire celebration. Teach him or her a signal that can be used to notify you that it is becoming too much and a break or some other change is needed. This can help avoid overstimulation and avert behavioral episodes and increase the amount of time you are able to stay and celebrate.
      • It may also be beneficial to teach the importance of limiting excessive commenting on items of interests such as the decorative lights or specific gifts. A great strategy for this is allowing your family member a limited number of times to comment on the item of interest per day. This can be taught by giving him or her something tangible to exchange, such as a penny or poker chip, any time he or she’d like to talk about it. Give the individual the determined number of items to exchange (ie. 5 pennies) and once they’re finished, so are the comments for that day.
  • Help

    • Help your family member enjoy the holiday season as much as others do. Some simple ways to do this include finding out what he or she enjoys about the holidays.
      • Maybe there is a specific carol he or she loves. Be sure to add it to your playlist and possibly set it up to be heard a couple of times while your music is playing (ie. Every hour or every 10 songs).
      • Find out which holiday treats or dishes are preferred and make them available whenever possible. When going to a relative’s house, make a bag to bring which includes one or two of these favorite treats as an alternative if needed.
      • Finally think about the gifts that may be purchased, share a list in advance if possible with relatives of items your family member would like unwrapping and using to entertain him or herself while away from home. So many great gift ideas can be found through Toy R Us’s Different Abilities catalogue as well as on the Toy Box Tools website by Hasbro. The different abilities catalogues have great options for supporting a variety of needs such as fine motor and gross motor skills, language development, and social skills to name a few. Toy Box Tools builds on this with additional visual supports that can be used to help develop play and leisure skills at a variety of levels.

As family members of individuals with autism there are already so many great things you are doing to support them. Using the five tips listed here will add to what you know works and remind you how important it is to not only support your family member during the festivities, but also everyday leading up to them. For additional holiday tips check out this one page document created by Autism Spectrum Therapies.