Ask the Expert - Practical Strategies to Maintain Your Child's Physical and Mental Health During the Holidays
Posted on 11/26/18 in Health by Milestones
The holiday season is just around the corner, and you can feel the excitement in the air! For most of us, the lights, glitter, family gatherings, shopping, and travel are all thrilling this time of year. When you are a parent of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, all of these thrilling experiences can also be a major cause of stress. All of the extra sensory stimulation, as well as the changes in schedule and routine, might become a significant source of anxiety for your child, causing him or her to become overwhelmed. So, in an effort to lower the stress level for you, your child, and the rest of your family, we decided to put together some proactive suggestions that will hopefully help all of you to enjoy this magical time of year.
Keep a routine. Since change is difficult for many children with ASD, try to maintain routines and stick to schedules (as much as possible). Use a visual timer (we are fans of the Time-Timer, as children can actually “see” the time passing without any anxiety-causing sound) and give a “First...Then” chart a try!
Prepare, prepare, prepare! Help your child understand what will occur BEFORE it happens with a social story (write your own or choose from those readily available online). Construct a calendar that visually represents when events will occur and refer to it often. If you are hosting (or planning on attending) a large family gathering to celebrate the holiday season, prepare a mini photo album that includes pictures of all those who will be in attendance and their names (review it with your child prior to the event). If you are celebrating locally, it might be helpful to plan a brief visit ahead of time, or plan to arrive before the other guests, to allow your child to become familiar with and comfortable in the environment.
Plan for waiting. Because it is often difficult for children (including those with ASD) to wait for any length of time (especially in a loud, chaotic, or unfamiliar setting), pack items to keep them occupied. You might want to prepare a “Patience Pouch” or a “Boredom Bag” filled with sensory items/fidgets and activities that your child enjoys and keep it in your trunk throughout the holiday season for those unexpected hold-ups and delays!
Plan for breaks. Keep in mind that children with ASD are often overwhelmed by loud noise and chaos that is often a characteristic element of large family gatherings. Identify and prepare a quiet sensory area to which your child can retreat to relax when feeling overwhelmed; if a separate area is unavailable, prepare a “Sensory Sack” filled with sensory items with which your child can play when feeling anxious. It might also be helpful to construct a “Break Card” that your child can carry in his or her pocket and hand to you when in need of a break.
Limit your stay in challenging situations. Keep in mind that crowded places (i.e., stores, malls, churches, etc.) may be too overstimulating for your child with ASD; the same goes for family gatherings, where there might be a lot of unexpected noises, odors, etc. In these cases, you might want to plan on staying for only a brief period of time before retreating for respite with your child. Alternatively, “divide and conquer” with your spouse or another family member, in order to make a showing at events without have to stay at any one event for an extended period of time.
Pack familiar foods. If your child is on a special diet or is particularly selective, make sure to have preferred foods readily available. It may be helpful to bring something familiar for your child to eat if the traditional holiday meal doesn’t include foods that your child enjoys.
Prep for travel. Provide your child with access to a favorite or high-interest transition item (i.e., a particular toy or book, iPad, etc.) to utilize while in the car or on the airplane. Prepare snacks and drinks, compose a visual schedule of what to expect, and review a social story about how to behave while traveling.
Share with family. Briefly educate your relatives on ASD, including how to help calm your child if the need arises. Model how to remain calm yourself, limit verbalizations, speak slowly and quietly, and utilize visual supports to gently encourage a reduction in anxiety. The Autism Society of America has excellent general information cards that might be helpful in this regard, as well.
Keep in mind that the holiday season can be stressful for even the most relaxed among us (and especially for children with ASD), but it’s also a time filled with wonder and blessings! It is our hope that some of these suggestions will help you to enjoy every moment with your child and family this holiday season. Happy Holidays and thank you for letting us be part of your journey each and every day!
Interested in learning more about your loved one with autism? Check out University Hospital's Autism Seminar Series this winter! This series is designed to improve understanding of the medical, behavioral, social, sensory, and educational issues related to ASD. An emphasis will be placed on practical intervention techniques. Presenters are local and national experts in the field of autism. For more information or to register, please click here.
Christine Barry, Ph.D. is a Pediatric Neuropsychologist at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. She is a member of many professional organizations, including the Ohio Psychological Association, International Neuropsychological Society, Autism Society of America, and National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Dr. Barry is the author of numerous articles on traumatic brain injury in children and director/facilitation of the 16th Annual Autism Seminar Series through UHCMC/RB&C. Dr. Barry specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of children/adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders. She is a consultant at Monarch Center for Autism and on the Advisory Committee of Milestones Autism Resources.
Elizabeth Diekroger, MD is a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the Society for Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics. Dr. Diekroger specializes in the assessment and management of autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, developmental delays, learning, and school-related problems.