A large family event stands before you. One part of you is excited to see everyone and to celebrate! But, anxiety lurks in your mind. It threatens to steal the joy of the day. How will your child with autism respond to all the people and the confusion that large gatherings inevitably create?
What can you do to prepare yourself and your child? 😀
Write down in pictures or words a brief outline of what can be expected: Keep it short and sweet: balloons, presents being opened (that belong to someone else), loud laughter, sitting at the dinner table all together, waiting to eat and hugs, many people, firecrackers so on. It is critical that we set up the framework for the outing as this will not be innately known by the child with autism….even if he has done it before.
Decide on a few positive expectations that you have BEFORE you go to the event. Be sure to write them down in pictures or words a small piece of paper and bring this with you. For example, “We expect you to: 1. Sit at the table during dinner. 2. Take turns in games. 3. Stay calm and congratulate the other team if your team loses. 4. Quietly ask for a break when you need it.” (Remember that these skills must be taught and practiced in a small, calmer atmosphere BEFORE they can be expected).
Plan ahead of time where the child can go for a break and what he can do while taking a reprieve. Be honest, many of us crave even a short escape during family functions! Children with autism NEED an escape to be planned ahead of time. If possible, scout out where the child could go when he is starting to feel like he needs relief from all of the sensory and cognitive chaos. If possible, make a list of 2 or 3 things the child could do for a short time. Be careful not to include an activity that will be very hard for the child to leave when the break is over. Use a Time timer or another visual way to show how long the break will be (one TV show, six songs on his ipod, one game etc…). Give a few minute reminder warning before the break ends.
Explain, in writing and/or words that the child is expected to come back to the activities after the break. He may take another one as needed. However, if parents know that a specific activity: singing Happy Birthday, opening presents, games and so on are challenging for a child. It seems reasonable to excuse the child during those parts of the festivities. Doing so preserves the festive nature for others and the child. There are other times to teach increased tolerance. This is probably not one of them!
Decide ahead of time that your child’s dignity will come before what others may think about your parenting. Choose to make this a time to learn more about your child and know that things WILL go wrong. This is all part of your education as parents of a child with autism. The way you handle your child will in effect model how you expect others to treat him.
Plan the best you can and then learn from your child what you need to do better next time.
Kids with autism are here to teach us all how to be better parents, families and communities. They have a lot to teach us!