Holidays and Children With Autism

Tips to help navigate party meltdowns and travel
By Firstpath Autism, www.firstpathautism.com
November 25, 2015 Updated: December 22, 2015

The coming holiday season is a joyful time of year that brings together families and friends. However, it can also be quite stressful, especially for those who have a child with autism.

With that in mind, FirstPath Autism would like to offer up tips to help handle everything from holiday party meltdowns to stress that can arise from schedule changes and holiday travels. While compiled for those with an autistic child in their lives, many of the tips work just as well for all families.

Schedule Changes and Travel

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In this time of joy and closeness, go easy on yourself by letting go of comparisons, shoulds, and “What will the extended family think?” (Courtesy of FirstPath Autism)

1. Prepare for changes in home and school routines. The holidays mean that your family’s usual routine shifts, and that causes disruption for everyone, including your child. Much as children may look forward to the season of celebrations, they may not understand that it involves trade-offs too. For example, having a holiday pageant at school may mean that their favorite art class is cancelled for the day. Be sure to discuss these changes with your child ahead of time. Your child may not infer that the pageant means that art class won’t happen as usual.

2. Assess sugar impact and decide what’s reasonable. The holidays often mean different foods and lots of seasonal treats. Find a balance between prudence and fun. Unless food allergies or confirmed intolerances are involved, consider allowing your child space to eat some special-occasion treats. Popcorn, cinnamon-baked apples, and trail mix are perennial winter favorites for kids who need to avoid certain food products or additives.

3. Be mindful of sensory issues. The holidays mean plenty of flashing lights, decorations, and music. Festive celebration can be challenging for individuals with autism and sensory processing disorder. Consider having your child help you either pick out decorations for the house or have him/her help you with decorating and preparing.

4. Ease into traveling and change. If you will be traveling to see family and friends, prepare your child for what the experience will be like. To help ease your child into the trip, you may want to bring along any special foods needed and a favorite object. If you’re flying, check with the TSA regarding any rules that may apply and consider reaching out to the airline in advance. Let them know you’ll be traveling with a child with autism and include any special information that might be helpful.

5. If the traditions don’t fit, make your own! Most of us start thinking in terms of tradition when the holidays approach. Given this, it’s easy to get caught up in how things are “supposed” to be. Holidays can include baking cookies, making gingerbread houses, and/or gathering with families and friends. But what if your child refuses to bake, is terrified of carollers, or wants to go to bed early? Remember that, as a parent, you get to do what works for you and your family. In this time of joy and closeness, go easy on yourself by letting go of comparisons, shoulds, and “What will the extended family think?” Embrace the reality of your own household, and most of all, have fun!

Holiday Party Meltdowns

Picture this: You and your family have made it to your favorite annual party. Everyone’s having a great time … that is, until your child with autism gets completely overwhelmed by the festivities. You tried to redirect his attention, but it didn’t work. What’s your next move?

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When your child is struggling, it’s easy to get swept away by frustration and panic, but the calmer you can remain in the crisis, the more effective you’ll be at helping your child. (Courtesy of FirstPath Autism)

Meltdown Prevention 101

Our initial recommendation is that you do what you can to prevent a meltdown prior to its inception. Remember that behavior is learned, and that what you model during calm moments will influence what happens during stressful ones. 

If you take time to teach your child appropriate self-management strategies, he or she will have a much better chance of maintaining their emotional control in difficult situations. Here are some things you can do: 

• Remind your child of the appropriate behavior and associated reward.

• Employ social stories and role-playing exercises to educate about appropriate behavior.

• Prompt the identification and verbal expression of feeling states.

• Review deep breathing techniques.

• Use adaptive equipment to provide calming pressure or lessen the experience of sensory overload.

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After a meltdown ends, make sure to take time to recuperate before re-entering the party. You both need to take pause and rest before getting back on your feet. (Courtesy of FirstPath Autism)

Child psychologist Lauren Elder, Autism Speaks assistant director for dissemination science, speaks to this question in Parents of Child with Autism Seeking Help Handling Public Meltdowns.  Elder suggests the following essential steps: 

1. Stay calm. This might seem obvious to you now, but in the chaotic moments surrounding a meltdown, it won’t seem so clear-cut. When your child is struggling, it’s easy to get swept away by frustration and panic, but the calmer you can remain in the crisis, the more effective you’ll be at helping your child. Take a moment to breathe and regain a sense of calm within yourself …. Your reaction is so important. You have the power to escalate or de-escalate the situation with your words, body language, and overall approach.

2. Stop and help your child. This might seem self-evident, but parents often try to manage their child’s behavior while simultaneously working, eating, or conversing with other people? Some such parental juggling is inevitable, and even the best parents need to divide their attention at times. However, make sure that you don’t do this during a meltdown. If your child is truly out of control, you need to be fully present and attentive to what’s happening around you. Otherwise, their physical and emotional well-being is put at risk. 

However, giving your full attention doesn’t mean lecturing, bargaining, or disciplining. If your child is having a true meltdown, she is in a panicked, fight-or-flight state. As such, she won’t be able to engage in new learning. 

In addition, be sure not to give in to any request or demand that directly preceded the meltdown. Doing so reinforces the idea that meltdowns yield positive results, and that’s not what you want to teach!
Rather than shouting, correcting, or rewarding negative behavior, simply prioritize safety. You can work on teaching once your child has regained equilibrium. 

You can also reduce stimulation levels. This may mean a quick move to a quieter, more private space. If that’s not a possibility, you can stay put and lower lights, block excess noise, and disperse a crowd if one has gathered. Which brings us to our final point… 

3. Tell bystanders what you need them to do. One of the most difficult elements of a public meltdown is … the public. Even if you’re at a party where the guests know and love your child, it’s still stressful to have him melt down. That said, you can take this potential frustration and turn it around. If you’re concerned about communicating with bystanders, try talking to friends and family members ahead of time about what to expect should your child lose control. You might consider carrying cards to hand to strangers if it helps to explain the situation. But if you’re surrounded by close friends and family, it may be easier to simply plan ahead and ask for what you need (be it space or support) in advance.

Finally, after a meltdown ends, make sure to take time to recuperate before re-entering the party. You both need to take pause and rest before getting back on your feet.

Want more guidance on this topic? These 10 Tips for Managing a Meltdown, with specific guidance from Amalie D. Holly, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst on the FirstPath Autism team can help further. 

FirstPath Autism is an organization dedicated to the education, training, and awareness of evidence-based autism treatment developed by the founder, Romina Kiryakous, at the Genesis Behavior Center in Turlock, Calif. The treatment practiced at Genesis is based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the most widely covered treatment for autism by insurance companies. In 2015, Kiryakous developed FirstPath Autism, a personalized online education, support, and training program dedicated to the parents and caregivers of children with autism. The goal of FirstPath Autism is to offer an autism lifeline to parents and to help caregivers better serve children with autism.

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