The weeks before Christmas are a tidal wave transition for folks with autism – and for many of us, quite frankly.
Almost nothing remains the same: reduced daylight hours, TV shows are pre-empted for holiday specials, and daily classroom routines are interrupted by assemblies, play practice, and sing alongs. Blinking lights and shiny decorations change the look of classrooms and home and trees pop up in indoor spaces! All of this to offer a break in the darkness of winter – and life. And yet, it can be far too much for so many people.
For those with autism, the spike in social expectations – Christmas parties, well meaning visitors popping in to say hello can be anxiety provoking. Particularly, when those visitors hug without warning and laugh a little too loud.
An atmosphere of frenetic activity at school, the mall, in traffic, and at home threatens to send almost everyone into a meltdown of sorts. Our kids with autism sense the heightened anxiety and busyness of the season, just as many of us do. But, for people living with autism the impact of changes around them can be far more unnerving than we might realize. It’s not that autism somehow renders a person to dislike the season, but, it does impact the way that the period is experienced.
Keep in mind that many people with autism already experience an overloaded perception of sights, sounds, smells, textures. The information coming into a brain that is not always adept at filtering and attaching meaning to the onslaught of input delivered to the brain by the environment bth outside and within a person. A brain with autism often leaves a person on the receiving end of WAY TOO MUCH stimulation leaving that person overwhelmed on an average day. To make matters worse, the brain with autism doesn’t do a very effective job of making sense of what’s being experienced. Given it’s challenges with flexible thinking, the autistic brain certainly doesn’t make it easy for the individual to consider options for relieving the chaos!
It’s no surprise then that the Christmas and holiday season is like an avalanche of perception engulfing a person living with autism and buried in overwhelm! Too much, too fast, too different. Too few skills to cope.
So, how can teachers and educators help?
1. Be an environmental antenna
Make a point of ‘picking up’ signals that might normally go unnoticed. A combination of sights, sounds, smells, social interactions, frustration levels (your own and your students), changes in the classroom, school and home might undermine self-regulation and result in inappropriate behaviour an emotional meltdown or self-injury for our kids with ASD. Check in with the student frequently to gauge any signs of distress or discomfort BEFORE those escalate.
2. Communicate with home even more than usual
Have there been numerous changes in the schedule? How is the child’s sleep? Any changes at home in the evenings? Changes in parental care? Any signs of illness? The student’s life outside of school is always key information for those who serve the child during the day. But, at this time of year-that information is CRITICAL.
3. DO NOT attempt to remove all that might be unsettling for the person with autism
No need to cancel celebrations and take down the decorations! People with autism will enjoy parts of Christmas just like anyone else. We are being proactive (and compassionate) when we put supports in place so that the student can experience the joy season.
4. Provide more breaks, calm places and activities
Add more sensory breaks to the student’s schedule (particularly in the afternoon). Designate some quiet time periods during the day (these would be great for everyone in the class including educators!) Calming music, dimmed lights, meditation, prayer – anything that carves a space for stillness is incredibly renewing. The holiday season need not be all hustle and bustle.
5. Plan ahead and use visuals
As much as possible, plan ahead and use visuals to show what is coming up in the schedule. Make the ambush of changes more tolerable by SHOWING, not just telling. Don’t forget to intersperse the schedule with activities that the student enjoys. We all need to have something to look forward to!
6. Incorporate the student’s interests into the festive season
Be creative and ask the student and colleagues for input. How can you tie his passion into the Christmas holiday season?
7. Be patient – more patient than ever
The increased frenetic activity of the season will be felt by those who live with autism. The anxiety will likely rear its head when “others don’t do as they are supposed to do.” Instead of practicing for the play, kids are goofing around; others are mistakes, not following the rules and the student with autism begins to ‘lose it.’ As educators, we may feel the same way about the antics of others – but, we have the neurological coping mechanisms and skill set to cope (although these are likely wearing thin by Christmas holidays).
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