It’s the time of year when tree branches are stark without leaves, snow flurries are fast approaching, and the smell of pine will soon be abundant; these are just some of the tell-tale signs that winter—and more specifically winter break—is here. For most children, this time of year means a joyous break from the everyday mundane and a happy welcome to the coming holidays, but for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, winter break may introduce additional challenges which can cause unwanted stress and anxiety for both your child and family. Planning trips, decorating, and holiday shopping all while trying to keep your child busy can be a struggle, that’s why below you’ll find a collection of helpful tips to get through this winter break as stress and worry free as possible!
One of the characteristic struggles associated with school breaks for children with Autism is the unexpected change in routine. Prepare ahead by determining how much preparation your child might need. If your child has a tendency to become anxious about an upcoming event or activity, limit the amount of time in advance you relay the information to them. On the contrast, if they become overwhelmed by abrupt information regarding a change in their typical schedule—similar to when a scheduled appointment is canceled or changed—informing them of the event in advance and on a recurring basis can help alleviate stress. Hesitations and challenges may still occur for your child during the actual event if the event will introduce unfamiliar situations. Utilizing Social Stories is a great way to familiarize your child in what they can expect and how they can respond in these specific social situations. Not sure what a Social Story is or how to create one? The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has an excellent resource explaining what Social Stories are and how to make one (Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, 2018).
Other tools you can take advantage of for regulating time and events during your child’s winter break are Visual Schedules and Calendars. Visual Schedules simply inform your child of what is going to happen throughout the day and in what order. Catherine Davies from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism notes that Visual Schedules utilize the individual's visual strengths which helps increase their understanding, allows them to learn new skills, and become more flexible (2008). Adapting a Visual Schedule can be done specifically for your child—depending on their language and skill level—by using objects, pictures or words to create the activities (Davies, 2008). The Visual Schedule can be as simple as writing down the activities your child will be doing throughout the day in sequential order or you can use an app such as Choiceworks by Bee Visual, LLC (available for IOS) to create one. As far as the upcoming events discussed previously, take advantage of a simple calendar and add major events and activities such as the beginning and end of their winter break, trips, family and friend gatherings, and holidays.
Holiday decorations will adorn every window and wall, loved ones will soon be arriving, and sensory overload is sure to show for individuals on the spectrum. Although for most people the winter holidays mean reminiscing with family and friends, shopping for gifts, and enjoying the decorations, this is not necessarily the case for an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder. If your child’s stress and anxiety increases around crowds, consider doing your holiday shopping without them or during no peak times when the number of people around will be tolerable for your child. Although not as prevalent as most of us would like, more and more stores are offering sensory friendly events. Check your surrounding cities to for sensory-friendly toy stores, museums, and theaters. Having a magical visit with a Santa who takes the time to warm up to your child and pair with them is a one of a kind experience!
If glistening ornaments, twinkling lights, or the smell of spruce and pine can cause sensory issues with your child, consider decorating in stages to allow them to acclimate to the new surroundings. While you might already know specific sensitivities your child has when it comes to touch, light, sound or smell, by decorating in stages you can recognize any additional items which might cause discomfort or stress and adjust for them as they appear. Although not as “prominent as other sensory problems—notably hearing and touch—[one study found] that more than half of autistic adolescents have visual processing deficits, including sensitivity to light” (Bullock, 2018). If after hanging lights you notice your child squinting and covering their eyes more then usual, consider purchasing a dimmable light switch, which allows you to dim the lights down to an appropriate level for your child.
While decorating and shopping poses their own unique challenges, nothing might compare to the actual holidays with additional family and friends in the home (or traveling to their house), reciprocal gift exchanges, and the large festive feast. Again, prepare ahead by informing your child of the coming visitors. This can be done simply by word of mouth, through Social Stories, or marked on the calendar of when they will be arriving and departing. A visual book with pictures and names of the guest that will be arriving can help alleviate added stress by limiting the unexpected. Along similar lines, if your child has difficulties reading or recognizing names, attaching pictures to the tags of gifts might be beneficial. Festive meal time and gift giving might impose hidden social structures which won’t be apparent to an individual with Autism. Help them by using Social Stories and role-playing how the events will go. Depending on your child’s skill level, practice turn-taking, wrapping and unwrapping gifts, and passing items.
Above all, you know your child best and will be able to help them through the coming winter break. Don’t forget to prepare others about how unique and awesome your child is. Let them know whether they prefer hugs or not if they tend to avoid eye contact during conversations, or any other suggestions which will help make events and activities smoother.
Winter break will pose many unique challenges for your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, but by preparing ahead and keeping in mind that things don’t always have to go as planned, your family will have a wonderful winter break!
Bullock, Greg. (2018, March 11). Light Sensitivity and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.theraspecs.com/blog/light-sensitivity-autism/
Davies, Catherine. 2008. Using Visual Schedules: A Guide for Parents. The Reporter, 14(1), 18-22. Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/using-visual-schedules-a-guide-for-parents
Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. (2018, November 23). How To Write A Social Story. Retrieved from https://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/assets/files/tipsheets/socialstoriestips.pdf
*This information is provided for informational and educational purposes only and should not be used to replace consultation with your doctor or qualified health professional.