The holiday season is just around the corner, and you can feel the excitement in the air! For most of us, the lights, glitter, family gatherings, shopping, and travel are all thrilling this time of year. When you are a parent of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, all of these thrilling experiences can also be a major cause of stress. All of the extra sensory stimulation, as well as the changes in schedule and routine, might become a significant source of anxiety for your child, causing him or her to become overwhelmed. So, in an effort to lower the stress level for you, your child, and the rest of your family, we decided to put together some proactive suggestions that will hopefully help all of you to enjoy this magical time of year.
Keep a routine. Since change is difficult for many children with ASD, try to maintain routines and stick to schedules (as much as possible). Use a visual timer (we are fans of the Time-Timer, as children can actually “see” the time passing without any anxiety-causing sound) and give a “First…Then” chart a try!
Prepare, prepare, prepare! Help your child understand what will occur BEFORE it happens with a social story (write your own or choose from those readily available online). Construct a calendar that visually represents when events will occur and refer to it often. If you are hosting (or planning on attending) a large family gathering to celebrate the holiday season, prepare a mini photo album that includes pictures of all those who will be in attendance and their names (review it with your child prior to the event). If you are celebrating locally, it might be helpful to plan a brief visit ahead of time, or plan to arrive before the other guests, to allow your child to become familiar with and comfortable in the environment.
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When my older son Aaron with Asperger’s was young, I immersed myself in ever-evolving goals for him, including school, social skills, comprehension, extracurricular activities and his emotional development. The holiday season always presented such fun and excitement while planning for how to make our Hanukkah celebration meaningful. Our joy expanded when we had our second son Josh, who presented new complexities and made us think through how to make the holiday special for each of them. We wanted to enrich their relationship as brothers and our family traditions, while honoring Aaron’s needs balanced with Josh’s.
As a neurotypical, very energetic child, Josh loved noisy activities and events that could push Aaron’s sensitivities to sound or light into overdrive. Whether he was playing with noisy toys he received as gifts, enjoying loud exhibits at our local museum or mall often accompanied by live music, or begging to go to an IMAX movie, Josh plunged into experiences that could set Aaron’s sensory issues on edge (Aaron still remembers a very loud duckling game that fascinated Josh while haunting him). Aaron’s special interests such as exploring an art museum’s holiday exhibit or the Natural History Museum science hall for hours on end bored Josh endlessly. I found compromises like a foray to the knights in shining armor displays for Josh in between Aaron’s beloved tours of every painting in a gallery, while trying to ignore Josh plopping down on the seat by Aaron’s favorite painting and dramatically sighing for all to hear, “I’m soooo bored!”
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I have many wonderful holiday memories like watching Christmas Vacation every year with my parents and brothers, or eating stuffing, mashed potatoes, and turkey covered in gravy on Thanksgiving while watching the Detroit Lions lose to Brett Favre’s Packers. This is a joyful time of year but also stressful – filled with sensory issues, unexpected visitors, and unwanted gifts.
The audio sensation of my brothers’ six children screaming and playing with noisy electronic rodent toys or the olfactory sensation of dirty diapers from the babies – worse yet, the slobbering dog who decides to eat off your plate, licking it clean; the unexpected visit from your uncle who smells of cheap Smoker’s Choice cigars and Mad Dog booze, pouncing on you with a bear hug. Don’t forget the sensory-unfriendly gifts. Your aunt’s handmade, itchy wool sweaters and scarves.
All these things can add stress to your holiday season. I have learned five simple ways to make my holiday more joyful.
Bring fun travel backpack to keep my mind at peace in the midst of sensory chaos: In this backpack, I have books, a notebook, pen, stuffed animal, and earplugs. Reading books helps keep my mind at ease. During the last ten years, I have read over a 1,000 books. I use my notebook and pen to write down ideas that come to mind. Autism causes my mind to over-analyze thoughts with a notebook I can write them down and not be hyper-focused on them. A stuffed animal reminds me of being a child and makes me feel happy, and my earplugs block out unwanted sounds from meddling kids.
Find a place to be alone when I feel overwhelmed by the holiday festivities: At holiday events, I always make sure I have a place I can go when I feel overwhelmed by my environment. When I celebrate Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas at my parents’ house, my refuge from the sensory storms is my old bedroom. In this room, I have over 4,000 books and all my favorite toys like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, GI Joe, and Calico Critters.
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Last month, new video was released of an off-duty Chicago police officer shooting an 18-year-old with autism on the city’s Far South Side in 2017. Ricky Hayes had eloped that night and began skipping through a local neighborhood when he could not find his way home.
Upon locating Hayes, the off-duty sergeant engaged in an “armed confrontation” with the teen, police said at the time, after thinking Hayes was pulling a gun on him. The new footage shows the teen was not aggressive as the sergeant initially claimed.
With individuals of color on the autism spectrum being at a higher risk for an incident with police, Milestones Autism Resources urges first responders everywhere to make autism training a priority. Proper education and understanding can keep traumatic encounters like this from occurring in the future.
To learn more about autism and available educational resources, please visit milestones.org or call us at 216.464.7600.
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Milestones was recently honored to work with The ACLU of Ohio and All Voting is Local in creating visual materials to educate voters with disabilities about their rights.
In collaboration with these organizations, Milestones helped to create more visually based materials that provide information about how individuals with disabilities can register to vote as well as how they can access accommodations. Please take this valuable time before Nov. 6th to share them with friends and loved ones!
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