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Occupational therapy professor provides tips for an inclusive holiday experience

The hallmarks of the holiday season — Holiday twinkle lights, carolers, the aroma of a large home-cooked meal — can  be an overwhelming experience for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  As families with children on the autism spectrum plan their holidays, Tina Fletcher, Ed.D., OTR, associate professor of occupational therapy at Texas Woman’s University, offers insights on how to create an enjoyable experience for all.  

  • Prepare with a story. By providing children with a sense of what they can expect, the stage is set for success.  Autism Speaks provides resources for developing customized social stories to your specific event. Ask the host for an agenda of events, so you can best prepare your child for what it to come.
  • Harness your inner negotiator. Many times, parents can negotiate expressions with their children. For example, allowing a toy at the dinner table and explaining it will need to be put away during a family event later. Allowing comfortable clothing (for sensory sensitive children) when in an uncomfortable situation (such as long hours in the car).
  • Plan as much as possible. Always be upfront with your child about what to expect in any given situation. When possible, do a trial run to practice group situations and settings and introduce the smells of new foods in your home. 
  • Designate a quiet space. Ask the host of the holiday festivities for a quiet, non-crowded space in their home. “Forced stillness is a nightmare for many of these children, who like to explore environments with their voice and by moving their bodies,” said Fletcher. She recommends designating a space in the home that may be quiet and is not crowded.
  • Use structure to your benefit. Family interaction during the holidays centers on traditions, and family participation.  In order to engage with children on the autism spectrum, a clear outline of rules (order of play, turn-taking), ability to anticipate the outcome and a clear beginning and end are highly recommended.  “These sorts of games encourage social interactions and connections without repercussions,” Fletcher said.  “Letting a child know ahead of time that someone else may win before the game starts helps to set the interaction up for success.”

 Many are swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and we frequently take for granted things that those with sensory processing needs find challenging.  Incorporating these tips and sharing them with friends and family will help to ensure an enjoyable holiday for everyone.

Tina Fletcher is a professor of occupational therapy and advocate for cultural arts access. Her passions focus on the use of creativity and art and how participation in the experience of art positively impacts a person’s quality of life.  Fletcher’s expertise in crafting social stories (templates that explain and prepare children for a specific experience such as going to the zoo), as well as training venue personnel to best support their visitors lends itself to providing insight into creating an enjoyable, inclusive holiday experience for the whole family.

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Page last updated 11:54 AM, November 6, 2019