Families of children with autism and developmental disabilities may find it hard to travel for the holidays. Changes in routine and changes in settings can be a major challenge for some children. If you are hosting a family member with autism or a developmental disability, here are some things you can do to make the holidays a bit merrier:
- Ask the parent or caregiver about the child’s food preferences – and be prepared for specific requests! Some children may have very particular tastes and only enjoy their favorite brands of food. It can be very hard for a family to travel with all these foods. By having them available, you are relieving the caregivers of some added stress. Your understanding of these preferences and flexibility in serving these foods will go a long way to make the family feel included.
- Ask the parent or caregiver about the child’s activity interests. Going to new places and interacting with new people can be hard for children with autism and developmental disabilities. However, if the child walks into your home and sees his (or her) favorite types of items and activities, he may be more comfortable and ready to engage.
- These favorite items and activities will be a wonderful inspiration for appropriate gifts for the child. For example, if the child already loves a particular character or has a strong interest in a topic, toys or activities that are related to this interest may be very exciting for him. If he loves to play with toy trains, he may also enjoy books about trains, coloring pages with trains, train movies, train whistles, etc. This strategy can be effective even if the child has very unique interests. For example, if a child with autism is strongly interested in ceiling fans, he may enjoy playing with pinwheels, fidget spinners, gears, or any other toy you can imagine that spins. Most importantly, understand that the child may not immediately react to your gift in an expected manner – by smiling and thanking you. This does not mean that he does not appreciate your gift, it may simply mean he does not yet have the skills to express his gratitude. Know that your consideration and patience will mean the world to the child’s caregivers.
- Ask the parent or caregiver about the child’s preferred types of social interactions. If he does not like hugs, allow the child to choose not to hug you, even if it is culturally normative to hug in your family. Find out if there are other ways it may be appropriate to show affection or interest. For example, if he has a favorite topic he likes to discuss, you may be able to quickly build rapport by discussing that topic with him.
- Do a “safety check” of your home to make sure that breakable ornaments, lit candles, and other hazards are out of reach. Make sure to ask the caregivers if there are any items that need extra monitoring due to specific forms of challenging behavior. For example, if a child ingests inedible items, a very thorough sweep will be necessary to keep the area clear of items that are particularly dangerous if ingested (e.g., magnets). If a child engages in wandering, you may also want to put jingle bells on your doors to act as alerts to adults if the child tries to exit unattended.
- Set up a “break room” in an extra bedroom or another quiet place in the house that the child can retreat to if he or she needs time away from all the noise and activity.
By Sarah Frampton, M.A., BCBA
May Institute is a national nonprofit organization that provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral health services to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, and behavioral health needs. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in Randolph, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit www.mayinstitute.org.