Many schools have short and long breaks over the course of a school year which can be disruptive to a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Shorter breaks coincide with Easter or Passover, and in some cases, simply the arrival of spring. There are shorter breaks and long weekends throughout the year, such as President’s Day weekend; however, the long breaks can often be the most challenging. The end of year holiday period is especially challenging with kids used to a school routine.
Some parents may schedule their family vacations around these weeks, while other families stay closer to home and try to stay as close to routine as possible. When it comes to preparing for a school break, planning, communication, and routine are your cornerstones. Read on to learn more about navigating school breaks (particularly holidays) so that everyone—parents included—have a successful break.
Preparing for School Breaks
One of the most important things to remember when planning for school breaks is that, for a person with autism, routine and consistency are key. However, this can be difficult when there suddenly isn’t the normal school routine and a natural breakdown of routine and structure occurs. Knowing this will occur can help you plan for it and minimize disruptions.
Before the break, talk with your child about the upcoming school vacation and what that means. If your child is nonverbal and/or is using an AAC device, communicate with them in the way you normally would. Start talking about the break a few weeks in advance. You can start planning activities, prepping your child, and preparing your outside support team (Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Occupational Therapy (OT), Speech Therapy (ST), etc.) for the change.
During the break, try to have a schedule laid out beforehand, knowing that you will need to be flexible and plans may need to change at the last minute. However, having a schedule to refer to during the break helps keep you and your child on track throughout the day. Try to keep routines as similar to school as possible, with similar morning and other routines.
Winter holidays can have some obstacles, so below is a quick guide on how to navigate the winter holiday break.
Autism and the Winter Holidays
No matter which winter holiday you celebrate, it’s a magical time of year. Many people look forward to the holidays for a chance to look back on the past year and reflect, to be with their families, to decorate, to give, and to just—be happy.
However, for the toddler, child, or teen with autism, holidays can cause extreme anxiety and sensory overload. No matter how dedicated parents are to ensuring the holidays go smoothly, there’s going to be a difficult moment.
Acceptance of that fact is the first step to navigating the holidays. Not every moment is going to be picture-perfect. There will be some bumps in the road, but there are a few ways to try to guide the holidays so that things go smoothly.
Social Skills Development & School Break Activities
School breaks provide an excellent opportunity for children with autism to work on their social skills. By incorporating social skills development into break activities, parents can help their child build essential socialization skills.
Structured playdates or outings with peers can provide opportunities for practicing social skills such as turn-taking, sharing, and initiating conversations. Parents can also encourage their child to engage in cooperative activities, such as baking or playing board games, which promote teamwork and social interaction.
Engaging with an autism-specific holiday camp can help.
Visual Schedules for School Breaks
Visual schedules and routines are powerful tools for children with autism. These visual supports provide a clear and predictable structure, helping children understand what is expected of them and reducing anxiety.
During school breaks, creating a visual schedule can help children navigate the day and anticipate upcoming activities. The schedule should be displayed in a prominent place and include pictures or symbols representing each activity. Following a consistent routine can also be beneficial, as it provides a sense of familiarity and predictability.
Educational Activities During School Breaks
School breaks offer a valuable opportunity for children with autism to engage in meaningful and educational activities. These activities can help promote learning and development while also providing enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment.
Parents can incorporate activities that align with their child’s interests and strengths. For example, if the child enjoys art, they can engage in art projects or visit a local art museum. If the child has a passion for animals, they can volunteer at a local animal shelter or participate in animal-related activities.
Surviving Holiday Gatherings
Surviving holiday gatherings can sometimes be the toughest thing. You’re in a strange place with a lot of people your child may not know very well. If there are other children, it can be quite overwhelming, which may cause your child to act out. Before you head out to grandma’s house for holiday dinner, you may want to consider a few things first.
Is this something you should skip entirely? Yes, it sounds horrible—but, if it’s going to be a terrible experience for you as a parent and a terrible experience for your child (based on past history), it’s perfectly okay to sit this one out. Alternatively, consider arriving after dinner or at a less hectic time.
You may also offer to host the family gathering at your house. While this may still overwhelm your child, they will be in a familiar space, which is much more comforting when anxiety comes.
- Preparation is key if you do not want to skip, and having the gathering at your house is a no-go. Find out ahead of time what the entire guest list will be and prepare your child for it. This is a good time to make a social story in a book, paste pictures on a whiteboard, or invest in a social story app that can help tell the story. If there will be other children there, this is likely one of the most important parts to go over with your child. There is no guarantee that this preparation will prevent a meltdown, but it may help the severity of one. Talk with your ABA therapy team about your plans, and they can help with preparations.
- If there are special rules where you’re going (such as a room no one goes into!), this is a good time to discuss expectations. If your child has not been to the relative’s house in a while and it’s not too far of a trip, you can try a “practice run” several days before the event. This will familiarize your child with the space, then during party time, they’ll recollect being there.
- As long as it’s okay with your family, arrive early. Arriving at a party when it’s in full swing can be completely overwhelming to a child with autism, no matter their age. If you’re a latecomer and ten people rush you all at one time to say hello, it can cause extreme anxiety and a meltdown. Be one of the first guests to arrive, and as guests arrive slowly, your child will acclimate as the party begins to take off.
- Inform your relatives that autism is a hush topic around the dinner table. It’s likely that your relatives may not understand autism. They may have a million questions. They may have tons of unneeded advice. Inform them ahead of time that now is not the time. There’s nothing worse than talking about your child while they are in the room as though they aren’t there. If your relatives are interested in the topic and have questions or want to offer advice, advise them to do it when your child is absent.
- Don’t force your child to hug auntie so-and-so. If your child does not want particular contact with a certain relative, that is their right. Honor their self-advocacy.
- Leave before you’re actually ready. Don’t push the envelope if things are going great and it’s getting close to bedtime. Make an early exit, skip dessert, and say your goodbyes. You will have a much better memory of the event, and so will your child and the rest of the family.
- If it fails, abandon ship. By now, you should be able to tell when this will simply not work. Don’t keep trying to discipline your child or keep forcing the issue. It may just simply not be a good day. Make your goodbyes, offer to host at your place next time, and head home.
Choosing Holiday Events
Besides dinner, maybe you want to take your child to a holiday event. It’s understandable. You want the magic of the holiday that every other parent and child seems to have. You want the smiling faces, the sleigh ride, picking out the tree, and so on.
First of all, pick and choose wisely. Don’t try to plan too many events that may have the tendency to overwhelm your child. Look for sensory-friendly events in your area (many cities now offer a sensory-friendly Santa at certain locations). If you are going to a holiday event, go early or late to avoid long lines.
Just as with the holiday parties, prepare, prepare, prepare.
Explain the event to your child, as well as how long they may have to wait, etc. If you have a smaller child and they become fidgety and impatient easily, consider bringing a stroller. Remember—it’s not about what anyone else thinks. If you truly want a happy holiday, think about what’s best for you and your family. It may be using a stroller, skipping the event altogether, or leaving before you’re ready.
Decorations and Embellishments
If you have a child with autism on the younger side, larger decorations may not be the best idea. Just like with very young toddlers, ornaments can become broken, wires may be a problem, and some children engage in pica (eating non-food items). You know your child best, but a tree may be too much for some. There are other options, such as felt trees that stick to the wall with sticky felt pieces. Not only does this allow your child to decorate the tree themselves, but it prevents accidents.
Christmas/Hanukkah traditions like the Elf on the Shelf and Mensch on a Bench are great ideas. Really getting into the story and the placement of the dolls can be fun for all kids, and if your child shows an interest, you can make a game of it. Countdown and advent calendars may also work well. Doing a countdown to your winter holiday can be fun for everyone.
Resources and Tools for Parents of Children with Autism During School Breaks
Parents of children with autism can benefit from accessing additional resources and tools during school breaks. Online communities, support groups, and forums can provide a wealth of information and a supportive network of individuals who understand the unique challenges of raising a child with autism.
There are also numerous websites, books, and apps available that offer tips, strategies, and activity ideas specifically tailored to children with autism during school breaks. These resources can help parents find inspiration and guidance when planning activities and managing challenges. It’s also a great idea to talk to all of your child’s providers prior to the break so everyone is on the same page. Your provider may also offer holiday camps during scheduled school breaks such as Acclaim Autism does. Reach out to learn more about how holiday camps can ease the transition between school and breaks.
To learn more about how ABA treatment can help make the holidays seamless or to request an evaluation or appointment, contact us at Acclaim Autism today to speak with a member of our staff.
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