Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often struggle during the holiday season. Social gatherings, lack of routine and structure, and sensory overload are extra obstacles for those who already have difficulties with the daily expectations. Preparing children and teens with ASD for upcoming events can be extremely helpful in easing anxiety and helping everyone enjoy the holidays.
Those with ASD already struggle with social expectations. Groups of people, even family, can be overwhelming. During the holidays, there are often more gatherings, more events, and more opportunities for social interaction. With some preparation, the stress on those with autism and their families can be reduced.
When it comes to family or public events, there is often a fear or lack of understanding of what to say, how to behave, how to cope with discomfort. While many kids on the spectrum can easily participate in one-on-one or small-group conversation, the expectations of large crowds can be overwhelming. People are loud and festive during many holidays. There is a lot of laughing and hugging and small talk.
Parents can assist their child or teen by prepping them with some options for small talk: “How are you?,” “Happy Thanksgiving,” and “I am fine, thank you for asking” are typical ‘small talk’ choices that come naturally to some but are often not easily accessible for someone with ASD. While the challenge of follow-up conversation still remains, often the awkwardness of initial small talk is eliminated with a little preparation and practice.
If the child with ASD attends school, the holidays may be a time of relaxation because of the lack of stress of school. But, for many, this also brings on anxiety from the lack of routine and structure. Daily expectations and preparation are very important. There is little routine or structure to parties, celebrations, and public events.
While there can be some preparation involved, often giving a child or teen an ‘escape route’ is equally helpful. If you have a party with a lot of guests, be sure the child has a safe place to escape such as a bedroom or back yard.
Have electronic devices such as iPads or portable video game systems available for them to mentally escape if there is no physical escape. Many kids and teens, with or without autism, spend a lot of time on devices. They are so prevalent now, it is easy to simply blend in and remain physically present, while providing a safe mental escape. There is an added bonus to this as well. With so many kids on devices, children with ASD may find themselves naturally interacting (at least with parallel play) with others around them who are also using electronics.
Sensory overload is a huge issue for those with ASD. Crowds of people, noisy commotion, bright colors, and a variety of smells can be festive yet overwhelming to the senses. Noise-cancelling headphones are an excellent option for many kids on the spectrum who want to enjoy the event without the noise. Quiet, hand-held fidgets also help in situations where the child may be expected to sit still and focus, like a Christmas play.
The escape route is very helpful for sensory overload. Some kids can handle a certain amount of input before they need a sensory break. If there is a place to go for some quiet, this is a great option to recoup for a short time before heading back to the party.
While the excitement of the holiday season can bring up feelings of anxiety and fear for some families living with ASD, it does not mean there are no options but to stay away. With a little preparation in advance, those with ASD and their families can work together to ensure everyone has fun and can manage the rough patches.