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Getting Kids on the Spectrum Ready for the Holidays

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For children with Autism, the holidays can be difficult. There are large, often loud, family gatherings, decorations to grab, and a ton of sensorily overwhelming stimuli. As special education teachers, it is our job to help our students on the autism spectrum not only survive the holidays but thrive. There are skills we can teach to help them get through Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and more!

Often people what to phone it in, during the month of December. They’re busy and stressed getting ready for the holidays, and right before the new year does not seem like a good time to start something new at work.

Not me. I love using the excitement my kids are feeling and channeling it into their interventions.

The holidays are a great time to work on social skills, impulse control, and more because there is a wonderful reward at the end of the stick for our kids. Children are always excited by the holidays, and as their teachers, we can harness that excitement to make sure they are prepared for any family plans they may have.

I call getting kids ready for something with an external deadline, like the holidays, teaching to an event. It can be incredibly effective, especially if it’s something our kids are motivated by.

Make sure to join my email list to get access to my free resource library, including my goal tracking sheet to help you monitor your student’s progress during the holidays and throughout the year.

First things first, you have to know what you’re preparing your student for. 

Are they going to a loud party? A small family gathering? Or will they just be chilling at home with their immediate family? Will there be candles? The expectation that they eat any food?

To prepare your student on the spectrum for the holidays, have a conversation with your child’s parents. Ask about their family traditions are and how they celebrate any religious holidays as well as the New Year.

Think about your student and their common challenges. What about their family plans is going to be difficult for them? Decide what to target based on that.

Are they prone to grabbing things and shaking them? That Christmas tree with those ornaments is going to look so tempting. 

Are they picky about their food and inflexible on textures? Those latkes are going to be a challenge if they’re only used to eating french fries.

Are they overwhelmed by loud noises? That party with their extended family might be difficult for them. 

Find the problem area for your child and make plans on how to help them be a little more successful this year than last year.

Some of these issues, like impulse control and noise tolerance, can take years to improve. Don’t be too hard on yourself, if you can’t solve every problem between December 1st and the New Year.

You are only human, as is everyone else on your team.

But the good news is, these are also problems the rest of the year. Even if it’s too late to make a difference this holiday season, your kid with impulse control problems will still need to master them in January. The same goes for your kid with noise sensitivity or food aversions.

If nothing else, you know what to focus on on January first! (Or second, since no one works on the first.)

One of my coworkers once told me, “Once you realize there’s an issue, you have to fix it. Don’t wait for a good time.”

That stuck with me. 

So even if everything won’t be solved before the end of the year, still start now. You’d be surprised how much progress a kid can make in a few weeks. And as long as they do a little better this year than last year, you can count that as a win!

How your sessions go in December will depend entirely on what you’ve decided to target. Below I’m going to list common strategies for helping kids on the spectrum get ready for the holidays.

If your kids need help with impulse control, check out my post on Impulse Control and Autism.

Noise sensitivity is a tricky one because it is both a sensory problem, but also partially baked in with anxiety. 

All my kids with noise sensitivity have a high startle response.

The first thing I like to do with noise sensitivity is develop a script with my kids. They do well with a mantra they can say to themselves to self-soothe. 

I recommend customizing it to your child, but I always include, “It is just a noise. A noise cannot hurt me.”

“It is just a noise. A noise cannot hurt me.”

My Infinite Wisdom

Then we listen to a noise that is upsetting to the child, on low volume, and practice saying the mantra. 

Make sure to have lots of compassion for them, and be calm and supportive while you practice. 

Additionally, talk to your student’s family about getting them noise-canceling headphones for their loud parties, and making sure their child has a quiet space they can retreat to for needed breaks.

For this one, I say target one important food. If possible practice eating a small bit of it together before the holidays. And practice often.

Explain the significance of the food, if there is any. This can include family traditions or religious meaning. If your child knows why you want them to eat it, that can help them understand why you’re doing it. (Not it’s not just because you’re mean). 

Try to get them to eat a little more each day. Start with smelling it. Touching it, talking about it. Maybe you need to start with just tolerating it being in the room or on the table. That’s totally fine. 

Add whenever you can and see if you can build up to one bite. 

If the food is not available to practice with, still talk about its significance. Maybe watch videos of people eating it. Discuss the flavor and texture and for extra fun, have their parents sit in a session and explain what it tastes like.

The more your front load the activity and give it value and meaning for your kid, the more likely they are to be successful or at least understand why the food is there and being offered.

These are just a few starting points. There is a lot more we as SEITs can do to get our kids on the autism spectrum ready for the holidays. 

Customize these ideas to your kids, but take the same idea of building up the skill little by little and working on it each day to your own plan. Consistency is after all the biggest thing we need to do to see growth and progress in our interventions.

Remember to also have fun and be joyful during this time. December is magical and exciting for kids. Harness that energy, don’t squash it. And don’t forget to work with your families to make sure everyone has a happy and successful holiday season!

Make sure to join my email list to get access to my goal tracking sheet, so you can monitor your student’s progress this holiday season, and stay safe and healthy and have a great New Year!

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