Catherine Browne, MA. BCBA, ABA Consultant at Beam ABA Services
Christmas time can be a time of great joy and excitement for families. However for parents of children with autism it can present with some challenges. There is often a change in routine and structure, where children experience different environments, more people and new sights and sounds.
Christmas for children with autism can be very different for each individual and they will respond to these changes in their own way. For some, it will be an exciting time and for others it can cause anxiety and uncertainty.
We have identified some strategies to help navigate some of the issues that can arise over the festive period so that there are more opportunities to enjoy this time as a family.
Use visual schedules, social stories or calendars to prepare for Christmas. Clearly identify any changes in the daily routine, highlighting specific events e.g. family or friends visiting or going to different places. It may be helpful to include photos of the different people that will be coming to the house and the different places you may be visiting. This will help your child be aware of who is coming and what is happening. Remember to prepare for the end of Christmas as well as the lead up to it.
2. Encourage participation
The home environment often changes at Christmas, where rooms are decked out with festive decorations. It may be helpful to involve your child in the changes to the house e.g. encourage them to help you put up some decorations or let them observe you putting them up. This can be done in gradual stages to help them adjust to changes around the home. Identify and assign some suitable tasks that your child can do so they can participate on some level.
3. Teaching opportunities
Christmas bring lots of changes to our surroundings both at home and in the community. This can be a good time to create learning opportunities for some children. Natural Environmental Teaching involves using the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) to teach in the natural environment. If your child enjoys the festive period and gets excited about certain elements of Christmas then capture these moments of high interest and use them to teach.
This can include identifying colours, labelling objects, naming people or characters and requesting preferred items e.g. What colour are the lights? Who is in the red suit? What is on top of the tree? There are learning opportunities all around us and for some children Christmas can be a highly motivating time to create opportunities to develop communication and social skills.
While preparing for all the changes in the daily routine and the environment it is still important to remain consistent when managing your child’s challenging behaviours. As a parent you know your child the best and so you will be able to identify triggers or signs that may lead to some problem behaviours. For example, if your child finds waiting difficult then proactively pick quieter times to shop. If this isn’t feasible, identify a preferred toy or snack they can have access to whilst they wait appropriately.
Alternatively you can prompt your child to use a functional communication response where they may request to “leave” or “take a break”. Proactively plan for options making them aware what they can do if they need a break or time away from people. This is especially important if you are out in public or visiting others.
No doubt there will be changes and challenges that arise over the Christmas period but with these changes come opportunities for learning. Remember to reinforce your child’s appropriate and positive behaviours. If you implement the strategies above you may observe your child do surprising and spontaneous things.
Perhaps, after seeing the visual schedule, they independently greet their relative when they come in the house. Or maybe they help you put some decorations on the tree or spontaneously say “Santa” when they see a man in a red suit. Acknowledge and praise the good things your child does as this will lead to an increase in these positive behaviours in the future.
Christmas means different things to different families. Approaching the holiday season in a proactive and positive manner can help to alleviate some of the stress that arises for parents this time of year.
The team at Beam ABA Services wish you all a Merry Christmas.