It’s no doubt that your students with autism enjoy the routine, consistency and structure of school. I know many parents that I have worked with that dread any non-school day. For many students, a holiday vacation is an exciting time of year and is welcomed eagerly. But for your students with autism, this time can be confusing, scary, and hard to navigate. They may be forced to see family members that they don’t typically see or even know. Being away from the routine of the daily bus pick up and the sequenced structure of school may cause anxiety. And don’t think for a second, that your student can not pick up on the “hustle and bustle” of the season. Things in their environment are changing. Their parents may be acting differently and the stress of the “truth” about Santa debate can be a hard one to work with. Even the routine of the school day can fall apart as holiday concerts, performances, and parties mix up their normal schedule.
So, it can be expected that an upcoming holiday break can wreak havoc on both a student and parent even before it starts.
Because of this confusing and often difficult time, I have come up with 8 ways to help your students during the holiday season.
1. Stick to a Schedule
Do the best you can to help your students before the upcoming break by setting and keeping to a schedule. Some students do better than others when coping with a “zig-zag” day. Try to recognize which students need extra help when dealing with changes in their schedule.
This is also the time of year for school assemblies. Be aware of when your school has schoolwide assemblies and make accommodations for the students that may not be able to handle a large group performance.
2. Plan for Spontaneity
If possible, teach your students the concept of a “zig-zag” day by practicing scheduled spontaneity. You could introduce this idea by periodically planning a slight change in their normal routine and adding a “zig-zag” PEC to their visual schedule. As funny as planning for a spontaneous event can seem, planning small changes in a student’s schedule can help them better prepare themselves for the inevitable deviation that you didn’t plan for. Slowly prepare your students for the big changes by practicing working through small, controlled changes.
3. Teach Coping Skills
The holidays are a confusing time of year. The schedule changes, decorations change, and people change. Teach your students some coping mechanisms. The holidays are a time where your students may be faced with being introduced to many people and expected to react appropriately to relatives that they do typically see. Coping mechanisms are something that can help students during the holidays as well as any time of the year. Try making social stories to help your student navigate situations that are foreign to them. Teaching skills such as how to ask for a break or how to cover their ears during loud noises can help during loud holiday parties.
4. Educate Parents
If you really want to help your student this holiday season, educate their parents. Make sure that you are open to explaining to them what the strategies are that you use in the classroom. Be open and welcoming. Give parents ideas for specific interventions that work at school. Are there specific terms or phrases that you use with your students? Offer to share this information with your students’ parents.
5. Ask Parents
This one dovetails with number 4. Do not offer unsolicited advice. No one wants to be told what to do, so ensure that you are only offering what parents want. The easiest way to avoid offending a parent with too much advice is to ask them for what they need. They may already have what works for them at home, so ask if there is anything that you can do to help them with the transitions and changes during the holiday break. Chances are they will be able to tell you exactly what their needs are for the long break.
You can also check in with them about what their schedule may look like during the break. Are they travelling or visiting relatives? Do they need you to make a social story or make a visual schedule for their daily adventures? Ask your students’ parents if there is anything that you can do to help facilitate a smooth holiday break.
6. Make Task Boxes
For many parents, keeping their child busy during a long break can be hard. Creating task boxes or preparing extra work materials can help a parent continue to keep a school routine at home during the break. It can be as simple as creating pages for fine motor scissor skill practice, to matching pictures or colors, to task boxes with life skills activities. To help parents, I typically send home materials that a student can complete independently (or with limited help) so that the child is challenged, but successful. I try to send things home that a child is proficient in so that a student can feel empowered and successful, but also so that a parent will have one less thing to worry about. It’s a win-win. Parents will be able to keep their child busy with tasks that help foster independence (and give them a chance to run to the bathroom) and the transition back to school will be that much easier. Plus, you can give students task boxes that will reinforce skills so that they do not regress over break. Score!
7. Keep it Positive!
Breaks from school can sometimes be a challenging time for parents. They may be anxious or nervous about being at home with their child all day for the next two weeks. Reiterate that you would like to help in any way that you can, and ask again what you can do to help. Keep the interactions positive, remind them of all that their child has worked on and accomplished at school to prepare for a long holiday break.
8. Feel Good About Yourself!
This is the last thing that you can do. You have practiced and prepped your student for the holiday break. You have created extra materials for them to continue to practice at home if they wish to. You have made social stories and picture schedules and taught your student about zig-zag days. You have done the best you could to prepare them for the holiday break. Now it is your turn to relax, rest and rejuvenate yourself. Know that you have done the best that you could to prepare your student and their family for the break, and allow yourself to let go. Spend some time with your friends and family and take time to do the things that restore balance to your life. Remember, the holiday break is for you too.