My child suffers from sensory overload during the holiday season. I suffer from emotional overload. We have a holiday bond. We love it, we hate it, we look forward to it and we dread it. By the time the holidays are over, we’re totally frazzled and a complete emotional wreck.
Parents of autism spectrum kids have a holiday bond too.
We don’t have time to gossip about Aunt Maggie or figure out what to wear. We’re far too concerned about location and environment.
“Where are you celebrating this year”? “We’re going to my cousin for dinner. She has a garbage disposal in her sink that Matthew loves”. “Ah! Oh! Dear Me!” Comes the empathetic reply with an understanding nod of the head.
As parents of children with autism, we become more religious during the holiday season. We pray at every moment. We pray our children will show interest in their gifts. We pray they will behave when we’re out visiting. We pray they will sit at the dinner table. We pray they will have a good time. We pray they won’t hit a well meaning aunt as she tries to plant a kiss on their cheek. Most of all, we pray for the courage and strength to ignore the judgments, well intentioned advice and sympathetic looks from friends and relatives.
We scout the stores for gifts for our children when we know what they really want. The perfect gift is a box of “Exemption”. Exemption from crowds, malls and stores. Exemption from smells, noise and strange food on their plates. Exemption from large gatherings and family occasions. Exemption from chaotic unstructured days where nothing seems to make sense.
Don’t throw up your hands in despair just yet. These holiday tips will help you sail through those toughest moments.
The bigger the gathering, the more sensory stimulation your child will have to process. A great strategy is to turn your child’s attention away from the noise by focusing on something else. Get a money box and give your child a bag of coins. For each new guest that arrives, let your child put a coin in the box.
Rather than dread each new guest, you will find that your child will look forward for people to arrive. This way, he gets to put another coin in the box. If the occasion is not at your house, make sure you arrive a little early so your child can gradually adjust to the increasing noise level as new guests arrive. Make sure to take the money box and coins with you. The money in the box is for your child to keep. Make sure you let your child know he can buy whatever he likes and MARK the shopping day on the calendar so he can look forward to it.
Prepare your child ahead of time. Setting a schedule will help your child know what to expect. A good example is to say “On Monday we’re going shopping. First we’ll eat breakfast and then we’ll get in the car. We are going to four stores, then we’ll buy a snack and then we’ll come home”. Be as detailed as you can. Name the stores and the items you plan to purchase. If possible, get to the store early in the morning when it’s still relatively quiet. Take a small entertaining toy with you that will hold your child’s attention. A great idea is a stress ball that lights up when you squeeze it. Buying your child a treat for good behavior is very motivating. It doesn’t have to be big. Noise putty and laser wands produce hours of entertainment.
Two important skills are learning how to give a gift and accept a gift. Start by teaching your child to accept a gift. Wrap at least 5 different items. These gifts should be FUN and contain toys your child enjoys. Examples are “a snake that jumps out of a can”, “light-up maracas” and “neon fans”. Give your child the first gift and use visual or written prompts which demonstrate “Thank you”, “opening a gift” and proclaiming appreciation such as “Wow, this is great!” Teach as many times as necessary but make sure the gifts are unique and entertaining to your child. Use a similar strategy when teaching your child to give a gift. Visual or written prompts should demonstrate “This is for you” and “You’re welcome”. Make sure gifts contain fun items as this will encourage your child to remain present when the recipient is opening the gift. Practice with a sibling or another parent. Teach your child give the gift and use the correct responses such as “You’re welcome”.
THE DINNER TABLE
How long should my child stay at the dinner table? This is a common question among parents of children on the spectrum. The dinner table is often one of the most stressful parts of social gatherings. First of all, there is “meltdown fear”. If a child chooses this time to have a meltdown, it will certainly be one of the main events of the evening. If a child is unable to stay at the table but has a tendency to place himself in dangerous situations or wreak havoc in someone’s house, it’s impossible to relax and enjoy a meal. Invariably, parents have to take turns to ensure their child is safe. Try some of these helpful tips for a more relaxed evening. If your child is a picky eater, this is probably not a good time to encourage him to try new foods. Let him eat foods he is comfortable with and don’t put anything on his plate that bothers him. If your child refuses to eat anything, that’s OK too. He’ll probably make up for it when he gets home or perhaps the next day. If your child is doing a great job staying at the table but needs a break, use a timer. Set the timer for 5 minutes. When the timer rings, guide your child back to the table. Encourage your child to remain at the table for about fifteen minutes before the next break. If your child is very resistant to being at the dinner table, try using small toys that can be kept on your child’s lap. Some examples are action figures, small cars or simple objects that your child enjoys touching and playing with. This will help direct your child’s focus on the toys, rather than concentrating on staying at the table.
Go to your regular Church, Synagogue or place of Worship. If you are out of town for the holidays, try and give your child a brief tour when it’s still relatively quiet. Educate your child about the holidays and explain the customs. Whether it’s decorating the Christmas tree, lighting a Menorah or any other tradition, an understanding of the holiday will make your child feel more connected. Write a social story about religious services so your child is prepared and knows what to expect. The story should contain elements such as who will be leading the service, who your child will sit with and actions your child will be expected to perform such as sitting quietly, greeting people or singing. The story should define when you will be leaving so your child knows there is a finite end. Take along small, non-distracting toys to keep your child occupied. During services empower your child by allowing him to make decisions. For example when your child is expected to sit quietly you could say “We have to be quiet now. Would you like to read your book or play with your Zoo Benders?”
One of the hardest things parents face are the perceptions that others have about their children. They cringe when people stare at their children or make comments within their child’s earshot. While it may appear that children on the spectrum aren’t paying attention, they’re usually taking it all in and parents are afraid for their child’s self esteem. If you notice this happening, stand in the way of your child and the stares. Direct his attention so that he can focus on something specific rather than the comments around him. Because people care so much, they regularly offer advice. While this is well intentioned, parents of autism spectrum kids are tired of receiving advice from people who often have very little understanding about autism. While it’s tempting to give that person a mouthful, try this strategy instead. Imagine their advice written on a piece of paper. See yourself tearing up the piece of paper into little bits and dropping it on the floor. Stomp on the paper, crushing it beneath your feet. As you smile in satisfaction, a big gust of wind blows the bits of paper out the window and the advice is gone. Judgmental comments are sometimes harder to bear and many parent with autism spectrum kids have heard statements like “You should discipline your kids”, “No child of mine would get away with that” and “You shouldn’t let your child behave that way”. If the comments continue and you absolutely can’t refrain from replying try responding with “I totally get where you’re coming from because I used to think exactly the same way. Now that I actually have a child with special needs, I’m far more enlightened. I’ve learned that strategies for typical children simply don’t apply to my child. However, I’m sure you have the best of intentions and I thank you for your concern.”
Don’t forget - it’s your holiday too! While you’re so busy taking care of everybody else, make sure you make the time to enjoy yourself. Having a child on the spectrum has given you a more stressful life than you anticipated. This year you’ve taken care of your children, spent time in meetings, read IEP’s, communicated with teachers and therapists and learned about new services. You’ve also had to take care of your “regular life”. Just like the rest of us, you felt great about yourself when you were being proactive and you felt awful when you thought you could be doing more. That’s how it is when you’re the parent of an autism spectrum child. Well it’s time for you to kick back and relax. If your child needs constant supervision, accept help from nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Designate specific times for you and your spouse to take turns watching your child. This way, you know where you stand. As an example, you will eagerly look forward to 7:00pm because for the next hour you’re free to relax and spend time chatting with friends and family. Make the most of this holiday because you deserve the break.
Written by Jené Aviram
Your friends at Natural Learning Concepts would personally like to wish you and your family a safe and happy holiday filled with love, laughter and joy.
FOR MORE GREAT RESOURCES VISIT http://www.nlconcepts.com
This article is property of and copyright © 2003-2011 Jené Aviram of Natural Learning Concepts. Reference of this article may only be included in your documentation provided that reference is made to the owner - Jené Aviram and a reference to this site http://www.nlconcepts.com
Jené is an accomplished author and developer of education materials for children with autism and special needs. She is a co-founder of Natural Learning Concepts, a leading manufacturer for special education materials and autism products. Visit the Natural Learning Concepts website at http://www.nlconcepts.com or call (800) 823-3430
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