Professional Tips: Calming the Chaos – Holidays Special

For many of us, the holidays are a time to look forward to all year long. What’s not to like? Cheerful music, holiday office parties, limited edition seasonal drinks at Starbucks? Yes, please! But for children on the Autism Spectrum, the holidays may not be quite as happy a time. With this exciting season, children who are already working diligently to manage the challenges of their day to day lives may suddenly be faced with changing school schedules, frequent over-stimulation, exposure to larger groups of family and friends, and more. While many children with ASD enjoy a number of aspects of the holiday season, a bit of initial preparation and front-loading of the changes to come, both preferred and non-preferred, is probably a good idea.

So where can you start?

Prioritize and Identify major adjustments or situations: As a parent already managing what is most likely a busy family life, getting a sense of any and all changes coming up for your child over the holiday season may seem daunting. By prioritizing the identification of major adjustments or situations that may become triggers for your child in one centralized place, you may be helping to set the tone for a more relaxing holiday season. One effective way to start is by getting a blank calendar of the next few months for your child and marking significant changes to their schedule (school holidays, parties, vacations including the location and method of travel, evenings they may have a babysitter, etc.). By doing this, you can involve your child in this process by letting them pick the colors or decoration to use to indicate factors such as days off or visits with family members in a way that makes it visually accessible to them.

If this project sparks certain concerns for your child, work with them to try to identify what may be causing their anxiety and to prepare them for the situation as best possible. One example may lie in looking at the date of an upcoming holiday party with their extended relatives. If such a situation has caused challenges for your child in the past, discuss what may cause them discomfort and look for opportunities to offer them coping tools to use in the moment. If they don’t like the loud holiday music, consider offering them the use of headphones when the music is playing. If they struggle to play the games their cousins like to play, point out some limited choices of games they could play for a certain period of time instead. From there, make suggestions of preferred activities they can engage in during intervals that will increase their comfort levels. For example, after playing Uno or Jenga for 10 minutes with the cousins, it would be fine for them to spend 10 minutes working with their Legos. It also might be a good idea to set some Legos aside now that they would be willing to share if others want to play too!

Set realistic goals your child: During less predictable events such as family parties, it can be helpful to set realistic goals with your child and help them visualize how they can meet them. If in the past your child stayed isolated in his room throughout the party, but you think he may have more social skills to utilize this year, you may want to work with him to see if he will agree to spend 30 minutes (or any period of time you can both agree is reasonable) greeting his relatives and showing them around. Remember that in setting that sort of goal, it is also helpful to identify which positive reinforcement he can expect afterward, such as some downtime in his room.

With younger children, consider making these goals or agreements more visually oriented. Feel free to ask for help from your Opya team if you like! Creating and posting a visual schedule that shows the activities and goals you’ve discussed (as well as the reinforcers to be received) should help keep your child on track and make these upcoming holiday events more predictable and enjoyable for you both.

For further suggestions or support in preparing for the upcoming holidays, please bring your thoughts and concerns to your Opya Intervention Specialist. We will be happy to offer customized suggestions and materials for you and your child. Happy holidays!


Originally published by Christina McMarrow, former Director of Parent Education (MFT), on Dec 6, 2016 for Opya.