We’re quickly approaching what is advertised as the most magical time of the year. Yet many families are experiencing the very opposite. For neurodivergent 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 supportive 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.
The following guide can be used as a resource for practitioners to use with learners and share with parents, caregivers, and families. You can embark on these four 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 with the holidays – Spending time with family and friends, traveling, holiday events, special outings, and 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. You understand their likes, dislikes, and triggers. With that in mind, it’s critical to keep things like favorite toys, items, foods, and activities readily available when so much out-of-the-ordinary activity is happening.
2. Set expectations
To facilitate a smoother holiday 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 they can expect. Doing this before the changes actually take place will help minimize behavior spikes that may occur.
With parents busy during this hectic season, parent training can sometimes get pushed to the side. However, supporting parents during times of change is more important than ever. Supplement with self-paced, on-the-go training to ensure caregivers feel supported and empowered to guide their children through these routine shifts.
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 children’s favorite foods, snacks, and possessions are present during new situations.
A collaborative relationship between the behavior analyst and a learner’s parents can significantly improve treatment outcomes, particularly in areas that will lead to socially significant improvements in home and family life. Check out ABA Parent Training in 10 Steps that you can use to implement or refine an existing parent training program.
3. Embrace routines
Routines are critical for neurodivergent learners in daily life. It’s important they don’t fall to the wayside when schedules and activities change. 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 life can be maintained during the holidays.
Families can also incorporate “school” activities throughout the day. For example, reading 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 so they can reference them 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 helps them traverse a hectic time and make the transition after the holidays smooth.
4. Create a safe space
It’s vital to design a calm space the child can go to when they feel overwhelmed in certain situations and need time to decompress. Preparing a space (in your house and 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 so that they feel comfortable going there when needed.
From our CentralReach family to yours, we hope these tips help make your holiday season stress-free, safe, and full of unforgettable memories.
Avoid skill regressions and interfering behavior spikes by offering self-paced, multimedia parent training with CR Care Coordinator. Schedule time with one of our experts today.
Cierra Inscho, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
Cierra is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with 5+ years of 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.
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.