Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How to Navigate the Holidays with loved ones who have special needs

This Fall has certainly gotten away from us All, and time flies by. I know in our household, we have had to 'readjust' schedules, slow things down and put up weekly/daily charts of what is happening and where everyone in the house is going to be. We have gotten all decorated for the winter season, earlier than we usually do, but it was needed and was prompted by our Son with Autism, who started decorating his living space, so we all followed suit, and that 'item' was checked off the internal list he has going on during this season. We do 'check ins' with each other during the day, to ask "Are you OK? do you have any questions? Touching base with each other, has given needed processing time to then voice concerns about what may be happening 3 days from now, who is going, what's happening, how long we are staying and how are we getting there. The holidays, while a welcome time of the year, certainly can cause 'triggers' for anxiety. While the acknowledgement of the importance of routine, schedules, preparing for the 'knowns & unknowns', has become a part of our lives, never more so, than during one of the busiest holiday & family times of the Year. 

This is  a great article that touches on a number of important tips and navigating skills for the Season. It is written addressing issues that a loved one with Autism may have, all the suggestions, would be beneficial for any individual with special needs, and those who are supporting them. Hope it gives you some ideas. 

I don’t know if you’re like me, but every year around this time a big lump develops in my throat, my head starts spinning, the to-do list grows, and I’m convinced that time starts moving in fast forward.

We’ve entered into that time of year sentimentally referred to as “the holiday season.”

And although we may live in different countries and celebrate different holidays on various days, for many of us this time brings with it plenty of stress in addition to the joys of spending special time with family and friends.

The stress might be magnified for someone with autism.

The experience of that mild and brief stress can often be greatly magnified and longer lasting for those on the autism spectrum. This time of year can be filled with precipitating factors for people on the spectrum, including:
  • Unfamiliar tastes and smells
  • Changes to routines and what normally happens on what day of the week
  • Noises and sounds that can be experienced as outright painful
  • Social expectations and spending time with groups of people
  • Spending time away from home and all its comforts
  • Down time away from a structured schedule
  • Weather changes and the timing of when it’s light and dark outside

And the list could go on!

What you can do:

For those of us who have individuals with autism in our lives or who support those on the autism spectrum as a career, we need to recognize these stressors and be as proactive as possible about them. NOW is the time to be planning and preparing that individual for the holidays.

So what can you do to minimize the impact of precipitating factors? Here a few ideas:

Provide advance notice multiple times about anticipated changes/disruptions to routines.
For example, I may know that watching a certain TV show is very important to the person in my care and that it suddenly not being on on its regular night at its regular time because of a holiday special would cause great anxiety or even defensive behavior for this person. So I would look at the TV schedule a couple weeks in advance, check for these things, and start providing warnings, maybe mark it on a calendar, and plan an alternative preferred activity for that time frame.

Provide coping strategies for sensory overload.
Crowds of people all talking at once, the crushing up and tearing of wrapping paper, holiday music playing in the background, glasses clinking together for a toast, unfamiliar smells of foods cooking...these are the sorts of things individually or cumulatively that can spark a crisis to develop. So think about making a coping kit available to the person with ASD, and teaching its use in advance. This kit might include things like ear plugs or an iPod with the person’s favorite music, a stress ball, smelly stickers of a pleasing variety to the person, a break card, or a reminder/cue card to say “Excuse me” before walking away, plus some desensitizing practice done in advance of a big family event.

Pre-teach and plan replacement behaviors.
Imagine what the reaction of others sitting around the person with autism might be if the person spits out or makes comments about a food they don’t like the taste of and think is terrible! If you’re traveling to a friend’s or relative’s house for a meal, ask in advance what’s on the menu. Bring along alternative foods for the person with autism to eat. Teach and rehearse table manners, conversational skills, and emphasize the use of breaks before any sort of meltdowns can occur.

Create and stick to routines whenever you can.
Try to bring routines into even what seem to be unstructured times or activities. Transitions in particular are good opportunities for this—packing for a day or overnight trip somewhere, coming into and leaving a setting, or gathering for a meal and cleaning up after it. Routines help people feel safe because they create a sense of predictability and mastery over one’s surroundings.

Pass it on — and share what works for you!

I hope these tips will help you enjoy the holidays just a little bit more this year. Please share and contribute your ideas for ways you’ve supported those with autism during the holidays and reduced the impact of those holiday-related precipitating factors!

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