By Victoria Oliver, MA, BCBA
Changes in routine can often be challenging for children on the autism spectrum, and holidays are no exception. Holidays come with a lot of hustle and bustle—crowds of people, different smells, new foods, and a lot of noise can create a stressful situation for families of children with autism. Here are some tips to help make the 4th of July go a little smoother so that, as a family, this special holiday is as enjoyable as possible.
Tip #1: Bring reinforcing snacks to cookouts.
Grilling out is one of the best parts of the 4th of July—hamburgers, hot dogs, and other goodies are staples of this summer holiday. Several children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) have dietary restrictions and many are picky eaters. Even though you might love for your child to be able to enjoy the foods that are already prepared, bringing some of their preferred snacks and foods can make them feel more comfortable. Bring a lunch box or cooler filled with foods that you already know they like and allow them to pick their own food to give them that freedom of choice. If they show interest in trying some new foods, then that is great! If you offer new foods to them and they don’t seem to like it, prompt functional communication to have them appropriately express their disinterest. For example, if you offer your child a hamburger and they shove it away or start to cry, prompt them to say “no thanks” or “I don’t want it” to help improve their communication skills.
Tip #2: Offer plenty of breaks to your child.
With an abundance of people during a holiday comes a lot of noise, smells, and some potentially unwanted social interactions, such as hugs. Offering your child a break from these situations can help them feel more at ease and be very beneficial in reducing maladaptive behaviors. Prompt your child to appropriately ask for a break by using phrases such as “all done” or “I need a break” with vocal communication, American Sign Language or their AAC device. Once you prompt them to ask for a break, remove them from the social situation and bring them to a quiet room to unwind. During this break, you can offer them squeezes, cover their ears, or even turn off the light to help decrease the amount of sensory stimulation they are experiencing. Once the break is over, let your child know that they can ask for a break any time to make them feel comfortable. Be ready to honor their communication when they ask for a break to continue to help them feel relaxed and communicate appropriately.
Tip #3: Help your child appropriately communicate their wants and needs.
Giving your child functional communication is very useful when teaching them to appropriately express their wants and needs. Often, children with ASD communicate via maladaptive behaviors, such as crying, running away, or hitting instead of using words to communicate how they feel. Functional communication and mand training can be used during holidays to help your child appropriately gain access to something they want (such as a snack) or to remove something they don’t like (such as loud noises). Before allowing your child to gain access to something they want, prompt them to ask for it appropriately. This can range from simply prompting your child to point at something to prompting your child to use a full sentence. For example when it comes to the 4th of July, if your child wants a cookie, prompt them to say “I want cookie” before you give it to them. You can also prompt your child to ask to remove something undesirable. As mentioned above, prompting your child to ask for a break to remove undesired situations (like excessive social interactions) can help them get their point across without engaging in maladaptive behaviors to do so. Consistently prompting this language can help your child learn to more appropriately communicate, making the holidays easier to manage.
Tip #4: Prepare for sensory overload by offering supports.
Last but not least, let’s talk about the main event when it comes to the 4th of July—fireworks! Although fireworks are entertaining, they are also very loud and bright, which can be overwhelming for children and adults with ASD. Offering breaks, as mentioned above, can be very helpful in reducing stress caused by these noises and bright lights. It could also help to offer your child sunglasses to aid in reducing the intensity of the bright flashes of light. Additionally, you can also offer noise cancelling headphones to help drown out the booming, buzzing, whistling, and crackling that fireworks produce.
Adhering to these tips can help make your 4th of July go more smoothly and put your child at ease. We hope you have a safe and enjoyable holiday!
June 18, 2020, Victoria Oliver, MA, BCBA