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9 Tips for Surviving Holiday Gatherings with a Child with Autism

Let’s face it, the holidays can get pretty crazy. You eat things that you normally don’t eat and see people that you don’t regularly see. You’re in a new environment surrounded by things that you aren’t familiar with. Add in a child on the autism spectrum and you’re looking at a potentially very bumpy road. Here some tips to help you survive those large family gatherings that occur around the holidays. 

  • Being in a room filled with people that you don’t normally see can be stressful for anyone, not just kids with autism. Imagine how you feel being in a room full of people you don’t recognize and needing something. I always tell my direct line staff that you know you have established a relationship with your client when they start seeking you out to ask for things. To help your child with this, look at pictures or make paper dolls of the people that you are going to see. You can pull pictures off of social media and put their names under their pictures. Put magnets on the back of the pictures and put them in a place where you will see them often like a refrigerator or a mirror. This will help your child recognize people’s faces when they see them in person. If you can recognize the faces of the people around you, it will cause less anxiety.
  • Practice saying people’s names and responding to greetings. When you walk into a new place, most likely people will be there to greet you. Practice saying “hi” to people and responding to basic questions like, “How are you?”
  • If presents are involved, have some kind of categorizing system so your child is able to identify which gifts are theirs. Try organizing things so that each person receiving a gift has the same kind of tag or the same kind of wrapping paper. My mom used to wrap my and each of my siblings’ gifts with our own patterned wrapping paper so they could be easily identified. This could be great for kids with autism who may have trouble sharing.
  • Let your child know the expectations for different environments. Make a rule for opening gifts, provide a social story, or let them know if they get through something that they don’t like, there will be a reward at the end.  A child may be more likely to sit at the table for a longer period of time, for example, if they know they get a special treat when everyone has finished eating!
  • Establish some kind of sign or code word for your child to let you know they need a break from the action. Take a walk with them or go to a room where no one else is around for a few minutes.
  • Bring some of your child’s favorite toys with you. Being surrounded by things that they know how to play with will make them feel more comfortable in a foreign environment. Make sure you bring extra batteries and chargers if you bring electronics!
  • Bring your own food for your child to eat. There is no shame in bringing food that you know your child will eat — especially if your child follows a specific diet (this includes snacks!). Not many people enjoy interacting with others when they are hungry.
  • If you are going to be around family members that aren’t as knowledgeable about autism, bring a small information card or talk to them about it ahead of time. Family members need to know that they must be patient and that your child probably isn’t going to communicate the same way that the other children at the gathering will.
  • Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun! Large gatherings don’t happen very often so you just have to make the most of it when they do!

by Margaret Hatteberg, BCBA Specialist, AHSS

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