Ask the Developmental Doc, November 2017: “The Challenges of Having ASD around the Holidays”

Dear Developmental Doc:

Our 9 year old daughter was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder last year. Thank G-d, she’s extremely bright when it comes to school, but basically clueless in social situations. Can you suggest ideas to help prepare her for my in-law’s annual Thanksgiving weekend? My husband feels we are obligated to go, but because our daughter is so socially inept, she typically ends up embarrassing herself and I feel like a failure as a parent!

Diane R. Santa Barbara, CA.

Dear Diane,

I’m actually taking in several concerns in your letter; it sounds like you would like holiday hints to help you daughter navigate the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend at her grandparents, but I am also hearing that if your child is not on her ‘best behavior’, her actions suggest that you are a bad parent. Nothing could be further from the truth! As you suggest, characteristic of this syndrome are children and adults who often have splintered abilities; they are typically quite smart within areas of specific interest but have great difficulty understanding and acting on the complexities of social norms.

In most case, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have wonderful parents who go to great lengths to instruct their sons and daughters on what is and is not appropriate socially. The challenges arise because society’s rules often change based on the circumstance of the moment and individuals impacted by ASD typically have poor motor planning skills that make it difficult for them to easily transition from one event to the next. With a bit of planning though, these obstacles can be dealt with very effectively.

1) Create a social story with your child that anticipates the upcoming holiday. The story needs to be written but does not have to exceed 6-7 pages. Have your daughter help you draw and narrate the upcoming event with strategies that the two of you think of to help her calm herself in case she becomes agitated.

2) Role play Thanksgiving. Give multiple opportunities to play out ‘scripts’ for your daughter to use if and when she is confronted by confusing scenarios over the holiday. These role play activities can be done within your home, with a social skills group with like minded peers and/or in a therapeutic one on one setting.

3) Consider shortening your stay for the holiday. Typical Thanksgiving weekends are a four day affair. Talk with your husband about the possibility of attending this family event for only one day. If this is not logistically possible, create a place for your daughter to have multiple opportunities for ‘down time’ (hotel room, for example, or quiet areas in her grandparent’s home), where she can retreat and reorganize if and when she feels over stimulated by the tumult of the holiday.

4) Alert your extended family of your plans ahead of time. Send out a thoughtful e-mail to all parties involved explaining your daughter’s circumstance and what you may need to do to make sure that your daughter feels secure at this family event.

Navigating the holidays is no easy task. You need to know what a good parent you truly are, just for taking the time to figure out how to make Thanksgiving an event that your child will truly be thankful for. Wishing you the best of holidays, Esther B. Hess, Ph.D. a.k.a. The Developmental Doc.