With travel opening back up, traditional indoor and outdoor celebrations are likely to be busy, noisy, and crowded. Some may include loudspeakers, parades, bright firework explosions, and perhaps overpowering with smells and smoke.
For a neurodiverse child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), these ingredients can often bake up a huge batch of stressful, intense, and potentially overwhelming meltdowns.
Fearful of, or in anticipation of, this possible result some families with a child on the spectrum may feel the best solution is to stay home and avoid such activities, opting for more laid-back fun. Exposure to more public events that are going to recur is an opportune time to help a child with autism learn necessary skills to not only adapt to ever-changing environments but potentially learn to love them all while celebrating common occurrences.
To prepare your child for the possibilities of what is typically expected in such situations, here are five tips to hopefully help your family manage the sensory experience of attending such large, loud events.
Tip One—Talk Through Expectations Ahead Of Time
Communication is a critical key to keep calm, especially while out in the community, where safety can become a concern.
Help your child to understand and envision exactly what is going to be different on the day of the event. Explore and explain all the things that could take place. Start by talking about what your child might expect and if possible get your child's feedback ahead of time on what your child may feel crosses a threshold into becoming "too much" for them and what might constitute a need for a break.
If you are going to participate in new activities, such as attending a stadium event, for example, map out the whole day with your child and rehearse parts of the events that you can. It is important to contact the facility and ensure what is or is not allowed through security so that favorite items that are not allowed in are then forced to be confiscated.
If your child has some usual techniques to help them cope, brainstorm how they might be used in these potentially new situations.
It may be comforting for your child to know if you and he/she can use a code word, flashcard, or favored technique when the child senses a situation is close to triggering a behavior. For example, in ABA terms, if the child or parent anticipates a common precursor to a behavior, the child can use the code and seek a comforting reinforcement ahead of time.
If you are going to be around people who are unfamiliar with your child's diagnosis, do some more rehearsal with your child about preparing for and responding to uncomfortable citations, such as being accidentally bumped or excitedly hugged.
Tip Three—Have Favorite Items At The Ready
Bringing along personal favorites universally goes a long way in all scenarios, not just during new activities. If your child has some favorite toys or snacks, bring them along. If they start feeling uncomfortable, these items can sometimes be enough to remind him or her of something familiar to feel calm enough to endure or even enjoy new or unfamiliar situations.
If you are attending an event that will include food, pack some of your child's more familiar, favorite foods. Ask them in advance what they want to bring along so they feel empowered with a sense of control. If appropriate, rehearse with them to gently say "no, thank you," when people ask if they want to try some different food.
Depending on your child's comfort level, consider packing sunglasses, hats, and/or a hoodie to help your child manage visual stimulation, especially if it is an outdoor event. A compression tank-top shirt or weighted vest can also be part of the planned wardrobe. Or, as much as possible, let your child pick their clothes for the day to add to the comfort to the occasion.
If your child doesn't do well with crowds because of multiple sensory triggers, there may be a concern that he/she could run in an attempt to get away and/or end up getting lost by mistake. For many reasons, it might be better to set up your viewing/listening spot a bit further back from the main attraction area. This is also useful if you think your child would like frequent breaks from the activities, will need to use the restroom, or for beating the crowds home.
Additionally, the sounds of the event are expected to be striking and intense—such as a sporting event that may have fireworks at the end—your child can have a pack filled with accessible earplugs or buds to play familiar music, or even noise-canceling headphones to block some of the auditory stimuli.
For some children, it is helpful to have a "job" for the day. Being a helper or "in charge" of some element of the activity will make them feel more involved and more in control of their experience. For others, try and give them as much choice as possible in terms of seating, moving around, or isolating themselves (with as much supervision as possible). Work with other family members or friends to form a buddy system to keep the child with autism feeling safe and comforted. However, you also should be prepared to escape; let your child know that they can always let you know they are overwhelmed and need to get away from the people or the place.
Also, create some options for them to decompress, even if that means coming into your orbit for temporary "protection." A small pop-up tent can sometimes serve as an escape pod if you are in an open space with lots of people. If you are visiting a place, sometimes a brief trip to the car can take tensions down a bit.
It may be helpful to develop a plan if a problematic behavior does occur because it can be more difficult to decide and implement comfort for your child on the spot and in a crowd. Discuss beforehand what strategies you will use and what each person in your party needs to do if you all need to leave.
Finally, if your child starts to display problematic behavior, attend to them and don't worry about the looks or concerns of others. If you prepare as best you can and remember this can and should be a positive, teachable, maybe even fun occasion, you will get through potential challenges at this or any holiday festivities out of the ordinary.