What's advertised as the most magical time of year is growing closer... and many are experiencing the very opposite. For neurodiverse children and their families, the holidays can be a time of overwhelming stress, anxiety, and exhaustion each year.
With several weeks left, now is the time to equip children and families with a plan including individualized tools, strategies, and tips that will help make the holidays, and these weeks leading up to them, a time of enjoyment -- not dread.
This blog was written as a resource for practitioners to use with learners and/or share with parents, caregivers, and families. You can embark on these 4 easy-to-implement strategies immediately, helping families get a headstart on decreasing the stress -- and increasing the magic! -- of the season this year.
1. Incorporate the “norm.”
It is essential to prepare for all that comes along with the holidays -- e.g., spending time with family and friends, traveling, holiday events, special outings, gift-giving and receiving, all the while trying to maintain an everyday routine.
As the holidays approach, remember this: you (and your client’s parents) know them best -- their likes, dislikes, and triggers. With that in mind, it’s critical to keep things like favorite toys and/or items, foods, and activities readily available during a time so much out-of-the-ordinary activity is going on.
2. Set expectations.
To facilitate a smoother season, ensure children are informed of upcoming holiday happenings they’ll be part of. Are any relatives and friends coming to visit? Will the family be traveling? Work with parents to discuss plans with children in detail to prepare them for the social encounters, activities, meals, and “out-of-the-norm” situations that lie ahead. Doing this before the situations actually take place will help minimize behavior breakouts that may occur.
Tip: Set up a visual calendar that includes the family’s holiday events. They can be written down, displayed visually, and shown through social stories or video modeling. Also - encourage parents to prepare in advance to ensure childrens’ favorite foods, snacks, and possessions are present during new situations.
3. Embrace routines.
Routines are critical for neurodiverse learners in daily life, and it’s important they don’t fall to the wayside during times when schedules and activities are changing. For children to thrive throughout the holidays, help parents figure out ways to incorporate routines as often as possible. Things like bedtime and morning routines, meal times, self-care activities, play, and other parts of the child’s day-to-day norm can be incorporated into the holidays.
Families can also incorporate “school” activities throughout the day, e.g. reading certain books, completing worksheets, doing arts and crafts, sports and exercise to mimic gym or recess, and (if age appropriate) adhering to the same nap time as the child has at school. Help parents prepare visuals in advance that they’ll be able to reference when the time comes, as well as set calendar reminders, timers, and rules regarding screen time. It can be difficult during the holidays, but keeping at least some of a child’s routines in place not only helps them traverse a hectic time -- but makes the transition after the holidays smoother.
4. Create a safe space.
It’s important to design a calm space the child can go to when they are feeling overwhelmed in certain situations and need time to decompress. Preparing a space (in your house as well as other homes you’ll be spending time in) in advance is a great way to avoid, or have a place to recover from, overstimulation. The space(s) can include preferred activities, things that address sensory needs, dimmed lighting, calming noise from a sound machine, and anything else the child uses to self soothe. Introduce the space to the child and spend some time there before the holidays arrive so that they feel comfortable going there when they need to.
During this time of year, don't forget to take your learner's strengths into consideration, praise them for "little" things, and don't feel obligated to attend each and every holiday event. There are countless ways to create special traditions at home, too!
From our CentralReach family to yours, we hope these tips help make your holiday season stress-free, safe, and full of unforgettable memories.
Cierra Inscho, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
CentralReach, Customer Success Lead
Cierra is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with 5+ years’ experience supporting children ranging from 18 months to 17 years old. Her lifelong passion is working with children on the autism spectrum as well as children with disabilities. This led her to the field of ABA. She joined CentralReach to use her expertise to help better support ABA organizations and enhance companies with a software to provide quality services.
Cierra has experience providing services across a variety of settings -- clinics, schools, communities, and the home -- both individually and in collaboration with educators and behavioral teams.
Her experience working with children includes: evidence based practices; early intervention; elementary schools; verbal behavior; functional life skills, and social skills; severe maladaptive behaviors; functional communication training; parent training: staff training; as well as toilet and feeding training. She’s also attaining mentorship as a sleep specialist.
Cierra resides in Austin, TX. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, running on the trails, reading books, and spending time with family and friends.