Contributed by Cathy Pratt, Ph.D., BCBA
Director, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
While many happily anticipate the coming holiday season, families of sons/daughters on the autism spectrum also understand the special challenges that may occur when schedules are disrupted and routines broken. Our hope is that by following these few helpful tips, families may lessen the stress of the holiday season and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. The following tips were developed with input from the Autism Society of America, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Easter Seals Crossroads, Sonya Ansari Center for Autism at Logan, and the Indiana Autism Leadership Network.
The following excerpts from the original article, have been adapted for use with college-age students on the autism spectrum:
1.) Preparation is crucial for many individuals. At the same time, it is important to determine how much preparation a specific person may need. For example, if your student has a tendency to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him or her.
2.) Teach your student how to leave a situation and/or how to access support when an event becomes overwhelming. For example, if you are having visitors, have a space set aside for the child as his/her safe/calm space. The individual should be taught ahead of time that they should go to their space when feeling overwhelmed. This self-management tool will serve the individual into adulthood.
3.) Know your student and how much noise and activity they can tolerate. If you detect that a situation may be becoming overwhelming, help your student find a quiet area in which to regroup. And there may be some situations that you simply avoid (e.g., crowded shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving).
4.) Prepare a photo album in advance of the relatives and other guests who will be visiting during the holidays. Allow the student access to these photos at all times and also go through the photo album with your student while talking briefly about each family member.
5.) Role play scenarios with your student in preparation for them getting a gift they do not want. Talk through this process to avoid embarrassing moments with family members. You might also choose to practice certain religious rituals.
6.) It may also be helpful to prepare family members for strategies to use to minimize anxiety or behavioral incidents, and to enhance participation. Help them to understand if your son/daughter prefers to be hugged or not, needs calm discussions, or provide other suggestions that will facilitate a smoother holiday season.
7.) If your student is on special diet, make sure there is food available that they can eat. And even if they are not on a special diet, be cautious of the amount of sugar consumed. And while we are talking about health, try to maintain a sleep and meal routine.
8.) Above all, know your student. Know how much noise and other sensory input they can take. Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may take. Know their fears, and know those things that will make the season more enjoyable for them.