Family visits, wonderful smells in the air, decorations around the home, laughs as another TikTok video is being recorded, everyone home and constant cameras flashing. The excitement in the air is so thick it can be sliced. Although many people look forward to the holidays, the stress that comes with it can be a source of anxiety for some. This stress can be multiplied in a home with a child with a disability.
Children with certain disabilities, such as Autism, thrive with predictable routines. The holidays with all its magic tend to interrupt set routines and remove environmental cues children may use to help them understand the world around them. Imagine driving a car and using traffic signs and lights to understand where you are and where you are going, then suddenly all the signs are changed. You may feel confused, lost and upset. This is what the holidays can feel like for children who thrive on predictable routines.
How can you help a child navigate the holiday commotion without feeling confused, lost and upset? First, take a moment to think about the setting and context. Think about your child's routine and what aspects of that routine help them thrive. What are the factors that create your child's behaviors? Can you preserve some of these factors to reflect the child's regular routine?
One strategy that may help your child navigate the holidays with success is the use of a visual schedule, a graphic representation of the sequence of upcoming activities or events using objects, photographs, icons or words. Consider creating a day-by-day schedule not only showing special activities that will occur, but also the routine activities the child is used to. Include pictures of family members who will be visiting or places you will go to provide visual cues. Some additional techniques to try include showing your child pictures or videos of previous holidays to help create familiarity with upcoming holiday activities and designating a ‘safe space’ where the child can seek out quiet time if things become too much to handle.
Keeping a daily journal may help you identify routines in your child's life that are successful and routines that continue to pose challenges. This way, you can appropriately and effectively identify patterns that can be employed to help support your child during the holidays.
Setting up a toy rotation is another helpful strategy for children with autism. Studies have shown that children play better, more functionally and more appropriately when there are less toys available. To create a toy rotation, start by gathering all the toys in your home in one place and then sort them into groups by themes (i.e. sensory items, imaginative play, dress up, vehicles, puzzles, etc.). Select one toy from each group and place them together in a bin or box. Create a rotation by allowing your child to play with the contents of one box at a time, storing the other boxes away for future use. When one box is swapped for another, your child will be excited to have new toys to play with.
Finally, if your child gets too many toys as holiday gifts, let them open and play with a few of their favorites right away, but leave others in their packaging and put them away for later. You can add them to your toy rotation boxes, bring them out to reinforce great behavior or use them for on-demand motivation.
Easterseals Eastern Pennsylvania is devoted to helping improve the lives of children with disabilities and their families. For parents of children with autism, Easterseals offers one-on-one coaching in the use of ABA techniques with a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at no cost to families. During the course of the program, parents learn about Applied Behavioral Analysis, which breaks down all behavior into three parts: antecedent, behavior and consequence. Parents are taught how to analyze their child’s behavior in this way and employ strategic techniques and interventions to improve communication and social interactions, develop new skills, increase appropriate behaviors and decrease inappropriate behaviors. Visit the ABA Therapy Coaching webpage for more information.