The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is upon us!  For children on the spectrum, it can be “the most stressful time” instead of “the most wonderful time of the year.”

“The overstimulating environment can really take a toll on children on the spectrum,” says
Pam Modugno, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist at Bacharach. “The holiday season is filled with bright lights, activities, shopping and a constant change in schedule, causing some children to have a tantrum or completely shut down.”

Too many transitions for children – going to the in-laws, then church, then making a stop at a friend’s home – can cause overstimulation.  “My advice is to cut back on activities and simplify things. One mother of two autistic children decided to have the holiday meal at her home this year because it’s more comfortable for her kids to be in a familiar environment,” says Pam.

Pam offers these tips to help children and their parents through the holiday:

Prevent Overstimulation

Take proactive steps to prevent overstimulation like regulating your child’s sleep, food, activity level and rest.  And before heading out to Grandmom’s for the holiday meal, help calm and organize your child’s sensory system with activities like yoga, breathing, jumping, wall pushups and jumping jacks.

Social Story

Since children on the spectrum typically function better in a more structured environment, Pam suggests making a “social story” of what’s going to happen.  It involves mapping out in advance of what will happen that day. For example, driving in a car for 15 minutes to the destination, who will be there, what happens when you arrive, what you’ll eat for dinner – and taking pictures to visually express the story.  The social story will help children feel more comfortable and help them understand expectations.

Role Playing

Help manage social expectations by role playing prior to the event. You can say to your child … when we go inside, we’ll say hello to everybody. If someone tries to give you a hug, you can give a high five or thumbs up instead. If you don’t like certain foods – just move onto something you like. Remember to make eye contact, and respect certain rules like not running around other people’s house or climbing on furniture.

Quiet Space

Pay attention to your child’s behavior to prevent a meltdown. Finding a quiet place without stimulation or going outside for some fresh air can make all the difference.

Heads Up to the Host

Parents of children on the spectrum can also experience stress when bringing their child to a social gathering.  To alleviate stress, have a brief conversation with the host explaining that you’re bringing your child’s own food to help with his food sensitivities. Explain to the host that while you’d like to stay for the entire party, you may need to have a shorter stay to prevent a meltdown.  Always, always monitor your child’s behavior and recognize when it’s time to leave.

The bottom line is the holidays can be enjoyed by all. Let your child enjoy the activities. Who cares if your child wants to play with the ribbons on presents and doesn’t want to open gifts! Consider baking or eating cookies instead of trekking around town to an overstimulating Christmas light show.

Enjoy the magical holiday season!



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