The holidays can be full of new experiences and emotions that most of us find exciting and welcome, but our children with autism may struggle with the disruption of routine and with the level of emotion and surprise that comes with the season.

You have the capability of creating holiday success as you shape new learning experiences and gain memories. Remember to view the world through your child’s eyes, and enjoy this time centered around your guiding relationship!

The development of foundations that support and build dynamic intelligence in our autistic children should and can continue through the holidays. Not only does this help to eliminate any breaks in the progress of our child’s motivation for growth seeking and relationship development, but it also gives us a strategy for pivoting with our child through the activities of the season and can help prevent upset and meltdowns.

Dynamic Intelligence – Help for the Holidays

When we modify our mindset to shift away from the holidays as non-changeable traditional much-loved experiences, and pivot to the holidays being a dynamic intelligence learning and opportunity-filled experience centered around the guiding relationship, we set our autistic child, family, and holiday experiences up for success. 

We also use our own dynamic intelligence in this pivot—our resourcefulness to plan for the unknown and prepare for challenges. 

Here are ways we can focus on the six areas of dynamic intelligence and help our kids with autism during the holidays:  

Emotional Referencing

We can slow our pace and make prudent use of our time by pausing and using non-verbal communication to increase opportunities for our child to witness our emotional reactions, to develop their own input, and share in their own in their timing (with no pressure added = less upset and meltdowns). 

Opportunity to pause, to use gesturing, to reflect emotions, and to use the time to form guided experiences, can come into existence in both everyday life and holiday activities. The opportunities are endless. 

Social Coordination 

Everyday life and holiday activities are settings that can be turned to guided learning experiences that will help our child regulate behavior and grow to understand that they can (and want to) socially participate when they do so. 

The steps to successful behavior regulation are paved with management, not control. As a parent guide, our beginning point should be the regulation of our own self. 

Here are some examples and questions for you to ask yourself: 

Where am I stressed? How can I eliminate anxiety in myself? Our autistic children “read” stress through our body language, words, tone of voice, and actions. 

Do I get into power struggles with my child, or do I make instant decisions and declarations that create learning experiences and choices that my child must make (“If you do this, then you cannot do this…”)? 

Do I teach my child that it is okay to feel too hot, too cold, or uncomfortable due to holiday lighting or music (i.e., hyper-sensitive), but that we can fix whatever is bothering him/her without major alteration in behavior and disruption in social activity? 

Declarative Language

We can use declarative language and non-verbal communication in all activities to help our child notice, wonder, and invite them to interact. 

Declarative language resembles thinking out loud, using as much non-verbal gesturing as possible, so you communicate to your child what and how you think. 

Examples of declaration language that prompts our child to interact:

  • I am not sure, what do you think? (Non-verbal gesture: expression of surprise and shrugging of the shoulders.) 
  • I think we might need some (forks). (Rather than you get the forks, or you tell the child to get the forks, your child is given the opportunity to think it through and retrieve the forks.)
  • I did not like that, it made me nervous, but I am fine. (Non-verbal gesture: wringing of hands, followed by a smile. Indicates that you had a nervous reaction, but you are okay now and have self-regulated.) 

Flexible Thinking

We can use everyday life experiences to encourage our child to adapt whenever life’s circumstances shift. 

Example of flexible thinking:

  • Your cat knocks over the Christmas tree. It is now bent with many broken ornaments hanging from the branches. Stop and think for a moment, take a deep breath, and then shrug), laugh, throw your hands up in the air, and use declarative language as you “upright the sad-sad tree.” 

You have now adapted to what could have been a frustrating and anger-filled situation, and your laughter, gesturing, and choice of language is noticed by your child, who will now find humor each time he/she sees the “sad-sad tree.” Disappointment has shifted to a shared holiday memory filled with laughter. 

Relational Information Processing 

We can include our children in the conversation when we solve problems that have no “right or wrong” solutions. We can do so through both verbal language and gesturing.  We can also present them with age-appropriate choices to broaden their information processing. 

Example of relational information processing:

  • You just realized that you are out of tape and cannot continue wrapping gifts. You include your child in the conversation verbally, and you gesture disappointment by dropping your shoulders as you say, “Oh no, I ran out of tape! I can go to the store and buy new tape today, or I can wait and wrap these presents another day. It is raining outside. It is nasty out there! What would you do? We do not have to finish wrapping today.” 

You have shared several solutions with your child and have opened the processing of the information up to them. Have patience and allow them to think through the circumstances. 

Foresight and Hindsight

Challenges during the holidays are often unique, as they may only occur once a year, but most of life’s trials share something in common. Through our own experiences, we can show our children examples of how current and past experiences intertwine, and how they can be handled productively.

Holiday experiences can be created as experiential learning to stave off some of the disruptions of routine and level of emotion. Model holiday experiences around common situations and learning tools that you have already used with your autistic child.

The more “normal” and routine life is during the holidays, with fewer unexpected circumstances, the more you can help your child avoid overload that could lead to a meltdown.  

You Are not Alone with This

Autism leaves us all feeling insecure and uncertain, even during the holidays. Always be patient and forgiving with yourself. You have unlimited insights into your child and how you have handled challenges throughout the years as a parent. 

You have the capability of creating holiday success as you shape new learning experiences and gain memories. Remember to view the world through your child’s eyes, and enjoy this time centered around your guiding relationship. 

You do not have to do this alone. Our online learning community is designed for parents to find connection and support with others, with access to the most current resources, and an open door to reach out for professional consultation if additional help is needed. 

Happy Holidays!

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