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Special Needs

Keeping the Calm this Holiday Season

Eliminating the chaos for individuals with autism

December 01, 2011
It was a simple picture with Santa. A festive trip to the mall. An American rite of passage that started to unravel while Dana Renay and her children were waiting in line. That's where her son with autism started to break down. By the time the family reached Santa, he was in full meltdown mode. She remembers him lying on his back on the floor screaming at the top of his lungs.

"All the moms looked at me like I was beating him. If I had thought about it, I could have better prepared him or told the people there that he was on the spectrum and maybe we could have cut the line," said Renay who is the executive director of the Autism Society of Indiana. She still doesn't know if her son was afraid of Santa, confused by the situation, or what. It was an unforgettable day nonetheless and an idea she would not pursue again.

Renay's situation is common. The holidays are tough on individuals with autism. Edy Stoughton, head of school for Midwest Academy of Indiana, said the holidays are a time of overstimulation and chaos. This can also be stressfully relational as kids are expected to hug distant relatives, show appreciation for gifts, and relate to Santa Claus among other things.

There are measures parents can take to maintain a sense of calm this month. Local experts offer the following advice:

Sleep tight. Stoughton believes in a good night's sleep. She said when kids on the spectrum get tired and experience a change in schedules and general chaos, "It absolutely destroys them." These kids work hard to read situations to understand what's going on socially. Good rest is a must.

Organize early. Jane Grimes, marketing director for the Applied Behavior Center for Autism, suggests parents get organized in advance of holiday madness. Prepare meals ahead of time. Think through the schedule. Anticipate key stressors and consider extra accommodations the child may need.

Keep visual schedules. Lay out the day on a calendar. Be very clear on what the child will and will not be doing. Consider keeping a white board on hand that lists the day's events so the child can see the agenda and check off activities throughout the day.

Arrive early. Special events can be harrowing for a child with autism. Arrive early to avoid some chaos.

Bring the child's comfort items. If parents expect the child to deviate from the normal schedule and go to unfamiliar places and be with lots of people, then bring along items that are calming to the child such as a blanket or handheld video game.

Find a sitter. Mary Rosswurm, executive director of Little Star Center, said don't take the child into the over-stimulating holiday crowds. If a sitter is not an option, then shop during off hours.

Be aware of the child and let them lead you. Rosswurm also advises parents to follow their child's cues. If he can only visit with family in a loud room for two minutes, then that's fine.

Explain autism to family members. For instance, be upfront with family members that extra noise might be stressful so it's OK if the child goes to his room to be alone. Explain to cousins that too many friends in his room at one time can be overwhelming. Instruct them to visit him one at a time.

Keep calm. Grimes knows the holidays are stressful for parents and said it's important to remain calm. "We're often busy and frantic and stressed, and the child with autism can feel and sense that. You may think they can't, but they can because I've seen it in my daughter."

Have realistic expectations. "You can't force them to enjoy it. You can only prepare them and be willing to leave if they need to go. Set your expectations appropriately," said Renay.

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Tags: In This Issue, Local, Parenting, Special Needs

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