The holidays can be a period of extreme stress and happiness. While many people overcome the challenges of this time, those with autism can easily fall behind in social or intellectual development. Per Autism Speaks, some of the most striking ways of managing the holiday stress mirror coping mechanisms people use daily, ranging from the use of mobile devices and apps to being open to new possibilities.
Rather than simply hoping for the best, caregivers and direct support professionals (DSPs) can encourage perseverance among those with autism through applying behavior analysis appropriately and following a few tips.
Applied Behavior Analysis and the Holidays
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is built on the ability to identify predictable scenarios and engage with them appropriately. However, the holidays can make using ABA seem obsolete. Every season brings new challenges and opportunities for learning. Last year, record-breaking snowfall across the country meant thousands of people with autism were unable to attend routine activities. Meanwhile, behavioral therapists may have been incapable of reaching their facilities or peoples’ homes.
Although winter’s nature around the holiday season can seem cold and unforgiving, it only serves to reassert the importance of ABA for people with autism. There will be setbacks, but you must continue to provide services to individuals with autism and adapt to meet the challenges presented by the holiday season. Ultimately, you need to find new ways of coping with the holidays, which people with autism may not necessarily understand.
Tips for Caring for Those with Autism Through the Holiday Season
1. Remember the Importance of Early Intervention
Early intervention is essential to reducing the incidence of cognitive and developmental delays in people with autism, affirms the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, the holidays can make many want to “overlook” potential health concerns. Consequently, family members, caregivers and DSPs must continue to watch for indicators of other potential intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDDs).
2. Be Receptive
People with autism may express different opinions or thoughts regarding holiday traditions or events. Caregivers should avoid trying to impress “appropriate” thoughts or feelings about the season onto those with autism. In other words, caregivers must be receptive to differing opinions.
For example, a person with autism may experience enthrallment with a specific decoration or another item. Rather than trying to remove the item, unless it poses a health hazard, encourage individuality and enjoyment. Sometimes, the most stunning or exciting holiday gifts may not be interesting in the moment to individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
3. Maintain a Routine
Routine activities are key to the use of ABA. Per Spectrum News, individuals with autism may undergo up to 40 hours of ABA therapy weekly, which some believe is overly redundant. Regardless of personal belief, those with autism often require extensive therapy for treatment methods to be effective and ingrained into conscious and subconscious thoughts or behaviors. In other words, routine is an essential part of encouraging appropriate behaviors throughout the holidays.
Simultaneously, caregivers must be willing to expand the definition of routine to include different activities and events throughout the season. Essentially, it may be impossible for people with autism to continue ABA as expected. Consequently, a routine must be created and implemented to fill any time gaps that may occur. ABA is effective and promotes long-lasting appropriate behaviors. However, a few modifications to routine therapy during the holiday season is reasonable to consider.
4. Consider Practicing Scenarios
People with autism may experience fear during the excitement of the holidays. Simple events, such as stopping to use the bathroom while traveling, can become major obstacles during holiday activities. Due to the increased travel during the holidays, behavioral therapists should teach parents how to facilitate this specific concern.
Behavior Analyst Daniel W. Mruzek of the University of Rochester Medical Center, reports Autism Speaks, explains how variability is the most significant factor affecting the use of restroom facilities during travel. One location’s facilities may be different, if not archaic, such as water-less rest areas, to people with autism. Pairing this with children with autism means toileting may become practically impossible. However, parents can encourage those with autism through the following activities:
- Practice. The adage, practice makes perfect, applies to this scenario. Children with autism are less likely to experience fear or exhibit problem behaviors when they know what to expect. However, this step can be tricky as it does take some traveling around town to experience a variety of restroom settings.
- Reinforce. Positive reinforcement should accompany the trip to the restroom during holiday travel. This can include returning a favored possession to a person after using public restrooms or using a similar reinforcer in advance.
- Use Visual Aids. Aids help to stimulate thought processes, and they can be valuable in encouraging appropriate toileting while traveling. For example, a series of first-then boards can be used for teaching people when to expect bathroom stops.
- Be Proactive. This step is asking about the need to go to the restroom. However, the key to success lies in avoiding redundancy and “nagging.” Instead, try to vary conversation or interactions, and work in questions about toileting needs at different intervals.
- Schedule Stops. Breaks to use the restroom should also follow a schedule, so a person can learn when to expect a stop. This is best achieved through a combination of the preceding steps as well. Consistency is essential in making a schedule work. For example, breaks should always be scheduled before or after meals or related types of activities.
School will be out, and travel concerns will become more evident as the holidays draw near. For people with autism, the added stress can be immeasurable, and the new experiences may undermine previous progress with appropriate behavior therapy. However, this is not a reason to pretend the holiday season does not exist.
You must expand autism awareness training to include ways of ensuring safety and continued growth and development throughout the season. Furthermore, you must implement plans to help those with autism learn from the experience and have someone to turn to when plans changes. Ultimately, behavior analysis can be a critical tool in helping people with ASDs overcome the holiday challenges.