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10 Tips for Navigating Family Events

Big gatherings might have slowed down for families during the pandemic. However, there are many that still get together for special occasions, such as birthdays, baby showers, bridal showers, Father’s Day, and Mother’s Day. Bigger holiday events like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas are approaching quickly. While all these occasions are fun to look forward to, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families can find them quite stressful. There are things your family can do to make these events go a little more smoothly, and less stressful!

Be aware of common stressors for individuals with ASD:

  • Sensory overload: new smells, new foods, bright lights, loud music, a lot of talking and singing
  • Fear of new places
  • Unfamiliar people
  • Unstructured time
  • Unplanned changes to routines
  • Transitioning from person to person or place to place

10 Tips on Navigating Family Events:

Talk to your family members before the event: 

Make your family aware of the things that may serve as a trigger for your child. That way all event participants can best  avoid triggering activities.

Talk to your child with ASD:

If your child understands verbal language and can communicate with you, talk to them weeks before and up until the day of the event. Tell them who they will see, what activities they can expect, and what food will be served. Example: “This month is Christmas, and we are going to Aunt Jackie’s house on that day. You will see your cousins, open gifts and eat a nicely cooked lasagna for dinner.”

Use social stories: 

Social stories about the event are great for children who need visuals to understand what is going to happen. The story can include what to expect on the day of the event, how the child is expected to behave and what they can expect from others in this social situation.

Use a visual or written schedule: 

The steps of the day can be shown through pictures or written out in a list. Example: First get in the car to drive to Grandma’s house next get out of the car and go into Grandma’s house, then play with your siblings and cousins.

Teach coping skills: 

Before the event, you can teach your child how to calm down if they feel overwhelmed. This might include going to a quiet space, taking deep breaths, closing their eyes, and counting to ten. If you notice your child becoming anxious or stressed, suggest that they use their coping skills and accompany them to another room to decompress, if needed.

Bring your child’s favorite item: 

A preferred item can help your child transition from home to an unfamiliar place. Your child’s favorite toy or their tablet/iPad can assist in the car ride to the designated location. Preferred items are also helpful when there are periods of waiting or downtime, such as before dinner is ready or time to open gifts.

Familiarize your child with the host’s house: 

Ask the host if you and your child may visit before the event. Familiarity can help your child to be comfortable in someone else’s home. If you are unable to visit before the event, ask the host to send pictures of different rooms in their home. 

Bring your child’s favorite food: 

Picky eaters may not eat what is being served.  Bring food from home for your child.

Provide verbal specific praise: 

Reassure your child that they are doing a great job! Tell them you like the way they are playing with the other children; how they are sitting nicely at the dinner table; and congratulate them for waiting to open their gift. Praise them for all they accomplish during this event!

Reward your child: 

Reward your child for displaying appropriate behavior throughout the day! A trip for ice cream is well-deserved after making it through an event that may have caused them anxiety.

Jennifer Roden, LBA-BCBA, is a Clinical Supervisor at Family of Kidz.

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