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A Picture Perfect Holiday

Every parent dreams of a holiday that is ‘picture perfect’ – one where there is no stress, when everything seems to fall into place and each child is wearing a smile on their face. This is a great goal to shoot for in any household but is challenging to achieve when you have a child that relates to the world in a different way.

Everyone wants to experience a truly peaceful and joyous holiday but the ideal “picture perfect” image presented in film and print is often too unrealistic to achieve, especially if you do nothing but expect it will happen. The hustle and bustle, the bright lights, the change in routine, the increased social activity, the anticipation, the different foods, smells, sounds and expectations all have the potential to send your child into a tail spin or cause her to withdraw into herself for sensory protection.

I know you want to avoid all of this. I know you have a desire that you and your entire family celebrate the holiday you dream of.

Is this possible? I say it is.

I can’t promise a magic solution but I do know how to decrease the likelihood that things will fall apart and frowns will be worn.

Let’s start with what you know about children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

  • They are often anxious about what they don’t know or understand.

  • They thrive on routine.

  • They tend to be visual learners.

You know that the holidays will bring a shift in daily routines making daily life a bit more unpredictable, which can trigger anxiety in your child. And when stress levels are high it doesn’t take much to trigger a meltdown that can put a damper on everyone’s holiday mood.

So why not use what is proven to work well to communicate daily routines and holiday plans to your child in order to reduce his anxiety?

Why not use pictures to create a more ‘picture perfect’ holiday?

Here are four ideas:

1) Use a calendar:

Putting final holiday ideas and plans down on a calendar – pictures included - that everyone can see and refer to, lessens confusion and reduces stress for all.

- Create a visual calendar that shows what will happen each day. Just decorating the house and putting up the tree can be a challenge when you have a child on the spectrum so mark the calendar with a picture of a tree for the day when the tree will go up. Add pictures of decorations for the days when you plan to decorate, and when they need to be removed. Reminding them in advance that the decorations are temporary will minimize any possible conflicts when the time comes to take them down and put them away.

- Use a big calendar that will accommodate pictures. Consider buying a special one for the holidays or create your own. What about using a stack of 8 x 11 colored sheets of paper, one sheet of paper per day? Once a day is done you can rip it off. This works well for a child that has trouble managing too much anticipation and deals better with one day at a time.

2) Use visual schedules:

In addition to a picture calendar, create picture schedules for certain routines, like getting up on Christmas morning. This will help your child transition better when she knows exactly what is expected of her because it provides predictability and minimizes anxiety.

- Make a list of the routines that will change due to the holidays and develop a visual schedule for each – such as school days and non-school days, bedtime routines for special nights (weekends, holiday gatherings or the ‘night before xmas’), going shopping, and even a schedule for what to do when visiting relatives and friends.

- If old enough, include your child by allowing him to cut, draw or take photos to be pasted on it. Designing and arranging these picture schedules with your child will not only be an enjoyable bonding time for both of you but it will give him advanced notice for what is yet to come.

- Keep the schedule posted where your child can refer to it often. If he asks what are you doing today, tomorrow, etc, all you have to do is tell him to go check the schedule.

- If you ever have to make a change in the schedule, do so as soon as possible. Then take the time to explain the shift to your child while looking at and reviewing the new schedule together.

3) Post chores and rules:

- If the holiday brings new chores that need to be done, create visuals, whether in writing or in picture format, to make sure your communication is direct, specific and consistent.

- Once the house is decorated, you may need a way to announce rules and expectations about what can be touched and what is off limits.

4) Create social story picture books:

- Create a social story about the traditions you honor during the holiday season. Regardless of whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Ramadan, Christmas, Kwanza or another ritual, a social story is something you can read to your child over and over again in preparation for an event. It makes a perfect bedtime story.

- Social stories are a great way to personalize how your child can help and in turn will help her understand and anticipate what the holiday season is all about. These picturesque stories also allow you to add another layer of information to your child’s knowledge base, such as why you celebrate a certain holiday and the values you hold around it.

Preparing your child with pictures, drawings, photographs, or images of what the holidays will look like, sound like, feel like, taste like, and even smell like can go a long way to promote the ‘picture perfect’ holiday you so desire.

For more specific information about creating visual schedules for the holidays, click here to access this ebook on Kindle, Autism Parenting: How to Have a Happy Holiday with your Child on the Spectrum.

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