Making the holidays successful for children with Autism (and the family too!)
With the festive season and end-of-year celebrations almost behind us, the prospect of surviving the next 4 weeks of holidays with the kids can be daunting, especially for parents of children with Autism.
Days spent at home, visits with friends and family, day trips and special activities are a potential minefield for children on the spectrum, many of whom rely on the day to day routine of school or kinder to bring some order and predictability to their lives.
So how can we support our kids with Autism to get the most out of their holidays, as well as accommodating the wishes of siblings and staying sane ourselves? Here are a few tips that may help.
Keep a routine
Creating some structure in an otherwise unstructured day can go a long way to minimizing the anxiety that holidays can elicit in children with Autism. While some children manage well with the changes that holidays bring, for other children it can be extremely unsettling. If your child needs the security of routines, keeping the morning routine the same each day (e.g. get up, have breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed) can be a great way to start. This doesn’t have to happen in a rush, like it might do during the school term, but the familiarity of following a routine and knowing what needs to happen next can be a great source of comfort. Alternatively, you may want to try introducing some new holiday routines like staying in your pajamas until lunch time, and this can be a lot of fun. The key here is to let your child with Autism know what is happening and what to expect, so they are not anxious about the unexpected.
Regardless of a child’s level of language, visuals can be a powerful way of supporting a child with Autism to understand what is happening in their day and what to expect. Whether it is using a picture schedule to communicate the activities of the day, creating a social story to illustrate what a visit to the zoo will look like, planning out the week on a calendar, or writing a list of important dates and events coming up, visuals are a fantastic tool that can be used to reduce a child’s anxiety about changes in routine and activities that are new or unfamiliar.
Provide activity ideas
For many children with Autism, coming up with ideas of what to do to keep themselves occupied (besides the iPad or computer) can be challenging, resulting in a chorus of “I’m bored” that can drive any parent crazy. Surprisingly, this isn’t necessarily about a child being difficult, but more often a sign that their skills in generating ideas and imagining possibilities are delayed and that they need a bit of support. Spend some time brainstorming possible activities that your child can do at home either unsupervised or with your supervision (and get them involved in the process if you can), then create a visual board or list of all the possibilities that your child can refer to when they cannot think of what to do. You can add or remove activities depending on your availability and the day’s events, and to keep things interesting. For example, you may have ‘cooking with Mum’ on the list one day, but take it off and replace it with ‘water play outside’ on a day when cooking is not convenient. Making sure the equipment or toys needed for each activity are readily available will also make it easier for your child to be independent in their choices and play.
Schedule in ‘down-time’
Even for children and adults that love to socialize, and many children with Autism definitely do, being with other people and in different environments can be emotionally and physically exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to pay attention to everything that is going on around you, process sensory information, make sure you are behaving appropriately, predict what other people might do or say and engage in the activities being offered or conversations that are occurring. When you consider all these factors, it is little wonder that children with Autism are often ‘burned out’ after social interactions or may go into meltdown afterwards as a result. To support your child to manage the demands of these events, deliberately scheduling in some down-time at home can make a big difference. For example, spending the day at home after a big outing watching DVDs, building Lego or playing with water, whatever is calming for your child, will give them the time they need to recharge ready for the next adventure, and hopefully give you some time to recharge your batteries too.
Have realistic expectations
As parents, the holidays are often the time when we want to make opportunities for special outings and creating family memories, and we can become disappointed when our child with Autism ‘ruins’ our plans. I have found that this is usually more a reflection of us having unrealistic expectations of our child’s behavior than it is about the child themselves. While an event may be special to us, that doesn’t mean that a child is suddenly going to be able to manage their anxiety, behaviour and emotions any better than they would on a typical day. Consider what you can do to support your child to manage the best they can by preparing them for where you are going and what will happen while they are there, and be open to your child experiencing the event differently to you. While you may want him or her to enjoy the atmosphere and join in, it might be enough to expect that they are there with you but sitting quietly on their iPad with their headphones in because that is all they can manage right now. That does not mean that your child will never be able to participate more in the future – it just means that your expectations need to match your child’s abilities right now.
Set them up for success
In keeping with the idea of having realistic expectations, sometimes we inadvertently set our children up to fail by not recognizing their limits and pushing them too far. I am not saying that we shouldn’t help our children step outside their comfort zones – I think that is extremely important. What I am saying is that sometimes we do it too hard or too fast, and then get upset when our children don’t manage. For example, if you know that your child can only manage 30 minutes at a shopping centre before becoming distressed, planning a 3 hour clothes shopping marathon with them is going to end in disaster. Knowing your child’s limits and planning around them means that you might only attend an event or activity for a short amount of time, but have a successful and happy experience being there, instead of trying to make them be part of something they can’t manage, and everyone ending up upset because it didn’t turn out the way you wanted. Planning in this way can be particularly difficult when you feel like siblings are missing out because you have to cater to your child with Autism’s needs, but this can often be accommodated by having a parent or carer leave with your child with ASD, while the other parent or carer stays with the sibling, or enlisting the help of friends and extended family. While this may not always be ideal, the more positive experiences your child with Autism has in different environments, the more likely it is that they will develop the skills they need to participate more and for longer in the future.
Know your child’s signs of stress
As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else, and sometimes even better than they know themselves. For many children with Autism, understanding and regulating emotions can be extremely challenging and the cause of a lot of confusion. Although a child may have difficulty identifying when they are becoming stressed or overwhelmed, they often demonstrate behaviours that tell us how they are feeling, and if we pay attention we may be able to intervene before they get to boiling point. If you notice signs that your child is getting stressed, taking action immediately will be most effective. This may mean taking the child to a quiet area away from others, going for a short walk, or having a big cuddle. It can also be useful to have a ‘bag of tricks’ with you that includes some snacks, a favourite toy, some sensory objects, and maybe a phone or iPad, anything you know will help your child calm down and regulate their emotions and behavior better. Hopefully, if you get in early, your child will be able to calm and then get on with whatever it is they were doing. In helping them reset and calm down, you are teaching them a valuable lesson in recognizing their emotions and that taking action can help them feel better.
Have a contingency plan (just in case!)
While I would love to tell you that following all these tips will mean the holidays will go without a hitch, that is not the reality. Even the best laid plans can fall apart, and when you have a child with Autism, you never really know if or when the wheels will fall off. If, after all your careful planning and preparation, you child struggles to manage their behaviour or goes into meltdown, it is important to know what you are going to do. Planning how you will respond beforehand gives you the time and energy to consider all your options, decide on the best response, and be prepared to jump into action with confidence if the need arises. The more calm and in control you are, the better your child will respond, and the sooner you can resolve the situation. Depending on where you are and what you are doing, your plan might be to take you child to a quiet room to calm, or you might have no option but to pack up and go home as quickly as you can. Whatever your plan, don’t be afraid to stick to it regardless of the opinions of others. In a calm moment later on you can reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and change your plan for next time if you need to.
Although the holidays can be a challenging time for children with Autism, they can also be a wonderful opportunity to rest and recharge, have new experiences and make new memories. Whatever your plans for the holidays are, I hope you have a safe and happy time with your families.
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