Autism and the Holidays: 5 Helpful Strategies to Increase Success and Joy!

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is a joyful and stressful time for many. For families of individuals on the autism spectrum, the holiday may prove to have some unique challenges. It is important for families of individuals with autism to consider these challenges and plan ahead in hopes to lessen the stressful times and increase success and joy for everyone. Let’s review some helpful strategies that you might consider implementing this holiday season.

1. The Importance of the schedule

Individuals with autism thrive on a consistent and predictable schedule. When the schedule is disrupted, problem behavior may occur. While your holiday season is likely to be less structured, it can be helpful to create a schedule and remain consistent with following it. Following a consistent schedule, may reduce problem behavior. Keeping consistent wake up times, bedtimes, mealtimes, and activities throughout the day will help ensure your child’s schedule is consistent and predictable. Your child may need a visual and preparation (e.g. visual schedule, calendar) of any changes to the schedule. If your child is receiving therapy, it is important to keep therapy appointments throughout the season. 

2. Preparation for new events and changes

With the holiday season brings a time of new events and changes to the schedule and environment. These changes may be difficult for an individual with autism. Preparation for these changes it key! Preparation for new events and changes can be done in a variety of ways and should begin weeks to days in advance from the change. Some individuals may need a visual schedule or calendar that includes new events and changes that will occur. To prepare the individual, the schedule may need to be reviewed several times. Other times, a script may need to be reviewed, modeled, and practiced with the individual so they feel prepared. If you are traveling, preparation should occur. While traveling, pack your child’s favorite things to have available to keep them busy during the flight (e.g. favorite snacks, toys). It may be helpful to have your child walk around the airport in advance to get used to the environment. 

3. Parties, Parties, and More Parties: Less might be More!

Holiday parties bring many people, noises, and extra distractions that may be difficult for an individual with autism. It is important to know your child’s limits and gradually extend the amount of time spent at a party. It may be helpful to practice this situation with your child prior to attending a party by using a script. With a script you can help to prepare your child on what to expect at the party and how your child should act. You can prepare scenarios that include how to greet others, how to engage in activities, as well as what to do and where your child should go if he or she feels overwhelmed. When your child begins to feel overwhelmed, encourage your child to communicate he or she needs a break and allow your child to go to an area they find reinforcing to take a break. Asking your child to stay at the entire party might be too much at first. Reinforcing small amounts of time and then increasing the time might be the right way to go. Being successful for achieving small steps to the end goal should be celebrated!

4. Connect with your Community

During the holiday season your community may offer additional resources, support, and activities for children with autism. Your community can be a great resource during this time. Many communities offer special and free events or activities for families of children who have autism spectrum disorders. These events provide safe and understanding environments as well as a time for families who are going through similar situations to connect with one another. To find out more information about activities in your area, it can be helpful to connect with local autism groups. 

5. Reinforcement

With all the newness and change the holiday season brings, it will be important to continue to support your child’s behavior and celebrate his or her successes. If your child has a behavior plan it will be important to continue to follow it during this time. Keep in mind the ABC’s (antecedent, behavior, consequence) of behavior. The antecedent comes before behavior and triggers it and the consequence is how you or others respond to the behavior. Keep track of behaviors and note any new behaviors that occur. When your child engages in new appropriate behavior and other behaviors that you want to see, provide reinforcement. When your child is successful in a new situation or at a party, provide reinforcement. Reinforcement may occur as praise, physical (e.g. high fives, hugs, pat on the back), or tangible items (e.g. toys, trinkets, activities, privileges).  Reinforcing the behaviors that you do want to see, will increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. 

We hope that these strategies will help your child to be successful this holiday season and that your family experiences less stress and more joy that comes with the celebration of your child’s successes. Have a wonderful holiday season!

References

  • Holiday tips. Retrieved from www.autism-society.org
  • Bears, K., Johnson, C., Handen, B., Butter, E., Lecavalier, L., Smith, T., & Scahill, L. (2018). Parent training for disruptive behavior: the RUBI autism network, parent workbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed). New Jersey: Pearson Education. 



Learn to Play, Play to Learn

Playing is an integral part of daily life for children. Through playing, all aspects of development can be promoted. For example, social skills such as sharing, cooperation, and turn-taking can be targeted while playing with a peer or family member (Lantz, 2001). Play takes many forms such as running, playing hide and seek, making art, or playing dress up. In today’s blog, we will discuss the different stages of play, how behavior therapists may encourage play, and ideas on how to promote play at home.

Stages of Play (Pathways, 2018)

1)      Unoccupied Play – This is when a child explores and discovers how their body moves (e.g., moving their arms, legs, feet, hands).

2)      Solitary Play – This is when a child plays alone and may include engaging with a toy.

3)      Spectator/Onlooker Behavior – This occurs when a child starts to watch other children play.

4)      Parallel Play – This is when a child plays beside or near other children but does not play with them.

5)      Associate Play – This is when a child interacts with others while playing mainly to give, take, and share toys. However, the amount of interaction is minimal.

6)      Cooperative Play – This is when a child plays and engages with others in the same activity.

ABA Interventions

1)      Natural Environment Teaching (NET) – This teaching method involves commenting on items/activities the child chooses to do. The goal is to increase a child’s verbal behavior, as well as expand their verbal responses. For example, if a child was playing with cars, saying “Wow! Your car is going so fast! Should my car go fast or slow?”

2)      Video Modeling – This teaching methodology has been found effective to teach children with autism a variety of skills. Video modeling is when adults or peers are recorded while acting out the targeted skill (e.g., playing with baby dolls). The goal is for the student to imitate the observed actions from the video to learn the skill (MacDonald, Mansfield, Wiltz, & Ahearn, 2009).

3)      Scripts – This is a specific visual strategy often used to promote social-communicative interaction while playing. Research has shown scripts are effective in enhancing interaction among children sociodramatic play (Goldstein & Cisar, 1992). Once scripts are learned, spontaneous responses are facilitated.

ErinoakKids Centre for Treatment and Development (2012). Sample Play Script.

 Retrieved from https://www.erinoakkids.ca/ErinoakKids/media/EOK_Documents/Autism_Resources/Teaching-Play-Skills.pdf

Other Visual Examples –

Memorizing the Moments. (2013, June 17). Block Building Templates. Retrieved from http://www.memorizingthemoments.com/2013/06/block-building-templates.html?m=1

Christine Reeve (2013-2018). Playground Schedule. Retrieved from https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Playground-Schedule-and-Script-Freebie-Autism-Special-Education-923613

Tips and Ideas at Home

  • Be sure to build play time within your child’s schedule.
  • Model how to play with the materials and/or toys. For example, if playing with play dough, show your child how you are making three balls to stack on each other to make a snowman. Ask them if they can make a snowman too.
  • As the holidays are near and you might be considering what to get your child, think about presents that could encourage your child’s play, based on their current developmental skills.
  • Set screen limits.
  • Get creative! Set up obstacle courses, build a fort out of blankets, decorate cookies, make slime.
  • If available, consider attending a play group.
  • Consider enrolling your child in an organized activity (e.g., gymnastics, karate).

In conclusion, playing is essential for all children’s development. Through play, children socialize, learn, and have fun! As Mr. Rogers said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”  Hopefully the holiday break provides some extra opportunities for playing and family time! Happy Holidays!

References

ErinoakKids Center for Treatment and Development. (2012). Teaching Play Skills to Children with Autism.

Goldstein, H., & Cisar, C. L. (1992). Promoting interaction during sociodramatic play: Teaching scripts to typical preschoolers and classmates with disabilities. Journal of applied behavior analysis25(2), 265-280.

Lantz, J. (2001). Play time: An examination of play intervention strategies for children with autism spectrum disorders. The Reporter, 6(3), 1-7, 24.

MacDonald, R., Sacramone, S., Mansfield, R., Wiltz, K., & Ahearn, W. H. (2009). Using video modeling to teach reciprocal pretend play to children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis42(1), 43-55.

6 Stages of Play: How Kids Learn to Play. (n.d.). Retrieved from

How Kids Learn to Play: 6 Stages of Play Development