The holidays can be a stressful time of the year for all families, let alone for families who are affected by an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder are challenged by behavioral excesses and behavioral deficits. Behavioral excesses can present themselves as extreme rigidities and perseverations that in turn manifest into severe tantrum, aggressive, and/or stereotypical behavior. Behavioral skill deficits can in turn present themselves as the inability to cope with changing schedules, novel situations or persons, and/or varying environmental stimuli such as smells, noises/sounds, or lighting. As a result, many people affected with an ASD are ill equipped to navigate and manage the holidays socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.
Socially, many individuals with autism may have a difficult time interacting with others during this time. One way to assist with this is to prepare them by exposing them to people and activities that they may encounter. Families can create a photo album with family members and friends who they will be visiting with, write their name at the bottom of the photograph, and each day look through the photo album. Parents can label for the child or have the child label the names of family and friends. Having the children watch videos of family and friends may also be helpful. Parents can ask family and friends to make a short video of themselves and again have the children watch the video. Socially, it may also be beneficial for families to create a list of the activities and/or places that they may participate in or visit during the holidays. These activities should be clearly outlined and placed on a calendar that is readily accessible and visible to the child. In addition, families can create a book outlining each activity/place and what will be done during that activity or at that location. This book should be reviewed with the child frequently prior to the activities taking place or the location being visited. Lastly, in order to facilitate social interactions with family and friends, parents can teach their children to play games that they may be able to play with family and friends. The games should be taught systematically and well in advance in order to help support your child with ASD.
Emotionally, children with ASD are not always able to appropriately communicate how they are feeling during stressful situations. Instead, they may engage in problem behavior to communicate that they have had enough. Parents can create visuals that will support their child during these stressful situations. Some visuals that can be created are an All done, Break, and/or Help, visual. These visuals can be presented in word or picture formats. These visuals should travel with the child and made readily accessible to them during holiday activities. Families can also take pictures of the child when they appear to be feeling happy, sad, and/or angry. They in turn can ask the child how they feel and have the child show or exchange the emotion card for how they are feeling. Depending on what the child is feeling parents can then provide them with the necessary supports like a break away from the situation if necessary.
Behaviorally, children with an ASD have a difficult time during unstructured situations. The more consistency and predictability that can be provided to them the better they are likely to do. Therefore, families will want to consider creating a visual schedule of portions of the day (mini schedules) or a schedule for the entire day. Families can use pictures or words to depict the activities sequentially that will be taking place. As each activity is completed the child can remove that picture or word from the schedule and they can move onto the next activity. Another visual support that may be helpful is using a first-then sentence strip. Parents can communicate both verbally and visually with their child by showing them the strip, for example, First store Then park. Again parents can use either words or pictures to depict each activity or location. As of late there has also been promising evidence that using augmentative and alternative communication systems, such as the itouch or ipad, for functional communication has benefited many children with ASD to effectively communicate their needs. Using a timer to delineate how much time the child will need to participate in a specific activity can also be helpful. Lastly, pre-exposure to people, activities, and/or locations prior to and on multiple occasions can also support children with ASD behaviorally.
For more information on how to support your childs unique needs socially, emotionally, and behaviorally through the use of applied behavior analysis and social groups please contact Rosa Patterson MS, BCBA at 714-717-5156.