The bustle, lights, music, gift-giving, and break-in routine make the holiday season a joyous experience for most. But these exact things can make it challenging to assemble an autism-friendly holiday experience for our neurodivergent loved ones. The days are filled with stimuli, constant conversation, a break in their schedule, and the appearance of unknown people in their personal space, which can be overwhelming for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Yet there is no reason to panic! Here at ABA Centers of America, we’ve worked with countless children during the season and have assembled some nifty practices to ensure your special loved one experiences the joy of participating in an autism-friendly holiday.
1. ‘Tis the Season for Some Context.
The holidays can be confusing for children diagnosed with autism since the days have a defined set of social practices and codes that are unique from the rest of the year. When you think about it, it is odd that people dress up as a big red man, yell “Ho Ho Ho!” and give each other presents while insisting that roasted chestnuts are on the menu. Since autism makes it difficult to relate and fully recognize social cues, the festivities and circumstances might alienate your child.
Take something as simple as present giving. If you celebrate Christmas, why can you only open presents on the 25th and not the night before when they are plainly visible under the tree? Or Hannukah, why must it incorporate food fried in oil, like potato latkes, that pickier eaters with autism might reject?
To a child with autism, it can feel like many new rules were suddenly dropped on their lap, and they have neither the patience nor inclination to entertain them. So how does one ensure the right start to an autism-friendly holiday? By explaining it.
2. Autism-Friendly Holiday Explanations.
First, why are we gathering? These are days of religious and secular significance; they celebrate those we love and what is good in our life. Ask your child who they care about and what they like doing the most in life. Then convey that the entire purpose of the day is to reflect on your favorite things and people, in essence, what you are thankful for and happy about having in your life.
This way, the relationship with the holiday will not start from distrust or antagonism. Make them feel like the day is not an interruption to their preferred manner of living but a supplement, more of what they love (more on this later). And that it isn’t all about other people and past events but also about them, how special they are, and what makes them happy.
Children with language developmental disorders have also benefited from storytelling, so work it in. Tell a compelling story surrounding the season and have them ask questions or tell it back to you as they understand it. Exciting them with the history and getting them to share in it can be an excellent start to ensuring an autism-friendly holiday.
3. Prepare for the events.
There will be guests; there might be a dinner, and there might be presents. It’s important to let your child know step by step what to expect so that at no point are they entirely caught off guard. A guest list with pictures could be helpful as you walk your child through who will be attending, their relationship with the family, and maybe a fun fact about each guest to spark curiosity.
If there will be a particular seating arrangement and the furniture will be moved around, a small rehearsal with your child might help make the day less daunting. Are you traveling for the holidays? Add them to the itinerary process and let them help plan the trip, enticing them with facts about landmarks they will be seeing and stops along the route.
Kids with autism sometimes struggle with new foods, preferring their old favorites and being hesitant to explore the unfamiliar. If you are preparing dinner for a crowd and the selection won’t be your child’s favorite, keep some of their preferred snacks nearby. Alternatively, you could slowly introduce the food you will serve in the weeks before by pairing it with the food they already like.
With Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) techniques of positive reinforcement, meaning giving a reward for desired behavior you wish to see in the future, you could acclimate your child to this adjustment. An example would be rewarding your child with chocolate if they eat a carrot.
You can also be mindful of food preparation and cook what they love with what they reject, such as a chicken stir-fry with broccoli, all sauteed with the same seasoning so the tastes mix. Let them participate if your child is fascinated by the cooking or baking process. The new things they will see and try might generate curiosity and new passions.
One good way to make the day smoother is to incorporate your child’s interests, seamlessly mixing the new and the routine. If your child has a knack for painting, give them paper and crayons as the guests walk in. This will be their reward for greeting each person. Reward each positive behavior with affirmation in any way you can, and they will quickly feel the holiday cheer.
4. Talk to your Guests.
Just as it is essential to set the right expectations with your child, it is pivotal to do so with guests. You will need their help to maintain an autism-friendly holiday environment. Things like playing music too loud can be overstimulating for neurodivergent children, so let your guests know to keep the music at a reasonable level. If hugging or physical touch can trigger maladaptive behavior, inform everyone that it’s best to say hello with a smile.
Any severe behavior, such as self-harm or aggression, should be straightforwardly communicated alongside what actions might trigger it. Having informed guests can avoid misunderstandings and ensure an autism-friendly space remains cheerful.
Guests may also sometimes bring children, who tend to be unpredictable and expect to play. Implore your guests to converse with their child and communicate that they need to be respectful and kind, as they might treat a brother and a sister. If your child doesn’t like to play with others, let other parents know their children could play alongside yours instead.
5. Create an Autism-Friendly Holiday Space.
This may be the most important of every tip in this article. The comfort of your child is a priority. The best way to account for unforeseen circumstances is to let your child know that at any moment they feel anxious, instead of acting out, they can take a break, no questions asked.
Set aside a private place in the house with some of their favorite things. This will be their safe haven if they are upset, overstimulated, or tired. If they choose, they can go cool off and return to the party whenever they are ready.
Most importantly, don’t stress! If you are high-strung and visibly let the anticipation of the events get to you or react badly when a guest disregards your instructions, things will be unlikely to improve. Become a soothing mediator for family, guests, and your loved ones. Everything might not go exactly as you planned, so don’t mind being surprised.
Children with autism view the world in unique ways, and that charm is contagious. You might be amazed at what they’ll come up with if given a welcoming, autism-friendly holiday atmosphere to express themselves. Go with their rhythm, and your family might create new traditions and wonderful ways to enjoy the autism-friendly holiday season.
ABA Centers of Florida
Give your child the gift of growth for the holidays. At ABA Centers of Florida, we provide the best personalized therapy for your loved one. Whether you want to teach your child healthier behaviors or have them attain skills that will assist them with independent living for years.
We have the experience and dedication to make a difference. Our team of certified ABA experts legitimately care about your goals and your child’s wellbeing.
It all starts with a phone call and a free consultation. Don’t hesitate to call us at (772) 773-1975 or visit ABACentersFL.com and take the first step toward improving your child’s future. Happy Autism-Friendly Holidays!