Full Inclusion Holidays An SLP offers tips to prepare clients for a season full of social and sensory stimuli—and people who may not understand their communication and behavioral challenges. Features
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Features  |   December 01, 2016
Full Inclusion Holidays
Author Notes
  • Kim Swon Lewis, MEd, CCC-SLP, owns a pediatric private practice in Greensboro, North Carolina. She blogs creative ideas for speech-language treatment at www.activitytailor.com. kim.lewis@activitytailor.com
    Kim Swon Lewis, MEd, CCC-SLP, owns a pediatric private practice in Greensboro, North Carolina. She blogs creative ideas for speech-language treatment at www.activitytailor.com. kim.lewis@activitytailor.com×
  • Mary-Beth Friday, MEd, CCC-SLP, founder of Communication Pathways (communicationpathways.com), a private practice in Green Bay, Wisconsin, also contributed to this article.
    Mary-Beth Friday, MEd, CCC-SLP, founder of Communication Pathways (communicationpathways.com), a private practice in Green Bay, Wisconsin, also contributed to this article.×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / Features
Features   |   December 01, 2016
Full Inclusion Holidays
The ASHA Leader, December 2016, Vol. 21, 52-56. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.21122016.52
The ASHA Leader, December 2016, Vol. 21, 52-56. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.21122016.52
The holiday season hits me just right—the scents of pine and cinnamon, the twinkling lights (the more the better), the candles, the ever-present music. I love the extended family coming into town, the enthusiastic and off-key school concerts and plays, and the special projects and winter-themed events in the classroom and home.
For me, the holidays are like a sparkly ornament: Whether you like it or not, you will find yourself covered in glitter.
But this isn’t the case for a lot of our students and clients who struggle with interpersonal communication, transitions, foods with different textures, and sensory stimulation. For them and their parents, the holiday season can be fraught with increased anxiety and harder-to-manage behavior.
So how do we assist our students who do best with consistent routines and expectations and who have little tolerance for unending adult chatter and high sensory stimulation? These are children who don’t easily manage the metaphorical holiday “glitter.” What strategies can families use to accommodate children working on pragmatic skills and behavioral management—and to sensitize other family members to these children’s unique needs?

Parents and caregivers can’t expect holiday miracles from children with these challenges. They need to manage their expectations because changes in the environment can contribute to the children feeling overwhelmed.

Get ready
For starters, parents and caregivers can’t expect holiday miracles from children with these challenges. They need to manage their expectations because changes in the environment can contribute to the children feeling overwhelmed. As a result, you are likely to see more behavior problems or shutting down.
It’s important to realize that progress at this time of year might look like a step back. But parents, extended family members and clinicians can take steps to help ease the stress on the child—and themselves.
Prepare students in advance. Use a well-placed calendar at school and home to show the sequence of holiday events including classroom parties, decorating, concerts, visiting relatives and so forth. Use picture symbols for non-readers. A calendar is a fun way to count down to the holidays and allows children to independently check “how many days?” as often as they need to. You can use sweets, small toys or pictures to mark the days.
Be proactive. Help older children plan for holiday challenges they may encounter by, for example, rehearsing events. Once they’ve identified likely rough spots or changes they may encounter—like becoming overwhelmed or angry—have them choose potential coping strategies such as self-talk or deep breathing. And although a reminder of the chosen strategies is appropriate, trying to identify one in the middle of a heightened state is nearly impossible.
Encourage parents to let extended family members know in advance about a child’s behavior and needs by sharing a handout. You can also explain what’s helpful to the child by sending an email with tips or a link to an article like this one: “Puzzle Pieces: Tips for the Extended Family of a Child With Autism.”

Help older children plan for holiday challenges they may encounter by, for example, rehearsing events. Have them choose potential coping strategies such as self-talk or deep breathing.

Provide a role model. Adults, too, can find themselves overwhelmed by holiday-related schedule changes and sensory overload. Parents can be forthcoming about sharing that anxiety and how they respond to it with flexibility. For instance, if travel plans prevent guests from arriving for dinner, explain, “I’m disappointed that Grandma won’t be here for dinner. Let’s eat while we’re hungry. We can have dessert together once she arrives.”
Establish routines through traditions. Help ease into once-a-year events while building family traditions by encouraging parents to make a picture book about the holidays. They can take several pictures of each annual event and make a simple picture story.
The holiday picture book can be reviewed each year before and during the holidays to help the child navigate through the changes during the season. Including seldom-seen relatives in the photos will also give children a chance for reacquainting before their actual arrival. Teachers might consider creating these books for the classroom as well, showing traditional classroom activities and events like field trips, performances and projects related to the changing seasons.
Pick and choose events. Adults avoid burnout by politely declining some holiday events, and parents can extend the same courtesy to children. Perhaps greeting grandma and grandpa upon arrival is enough excitement, and staying home with a familiar sitter rather than joining the family for dinner out is an option. If special events during the school day are becoming overwhelming, perhaps an option to sit one out in a quieter area of the school is an alternative.
Trust your instincts! Encourage parents, when attending social events, that it’s OK to remind family and friends not to hug or pressure a child to speak or look at them. Gauge how much activity a child can tolerate before needing a break and plan a place to go to regroup (another room, the car, a walk) or prepare to leave the event early. In the school setting, this may mean strategizing seating at a performance near an exit, or arriving before others file in or after everyone else has settled in their seat.

Encourage parents to let extended family members know in advance about a child’s behavior and needs—and what’s helpful to the child.

Social teachable moment
The holidays also provide a unique opportunity for clinicians and parents to help a child target pragmatic goals in a natural context. Consider the following:
Strengthen conversational skills. Often students with pragmatic challenges don’t give their listener enough context to easily follow the conversation. This is another opportunity to create small photo books of current “hot” topics for the child—it may be a holiday “wish list” of hoped-for gifts or perhaps a quick summary of a beloved story—whatever topic the child is revisiting frequently. This book can be used for rehearsal—reminding the child to include background information for the listener—or can be shared with an interested adult who now has a better idea of the topic and an easier way to formulate questions.
Books have the added benefit of allowing joint attention without the pressure of eye contact. And because there tends to be a larger assortment of “new” listeners during the holidays, a child that tends to repeat stories will have an appropriate reason to do so in addition to the extra conversation practice.
Rein in perseveration. The excitement of gifts often results in a child “stuck” on talking about a specific desire. Parents can set parameters on the amount of time this is discussed by using tokens (such as poker chips or pennies). The child receives five tokens in the morning (or divide the tokens—two in the morning and another three in the afternoon) and can trade in a chip to talk about the desired item for five minutes. Using the timer on a phone or oven helps everyone know when the five minutes are up. This technique can be used at home or in school.
Focus on executive-function skills. Planning, memory, organization and flexible thinking are high-level skills that elude many students. Family game nights or “White Elephant” gift exchanges provide an opportunity to practice these skills. Or, for a child who struggles with competition, try crafts. Baking cookies and making traditional family recipes require lots of planning and organization with the added bonuses of bonding and delicious results.
Promote friendships. Customs of exchanging gifts or small tokens during holidays is a prime occasion for perspective-taking. Guide young ones in understanding that their desire for everything superhero isn’t shared by a sports enthusiast friend or a princess-crazed younger sister. A simple card craft, in which the child cuts pictures from a catalog, can be a heartfelt gift for a teacher, friend or family member.
Develop empathy. The awareness that everyone requires help from time to time is part of our humanity and the holidays abound with chances to pitch in for someone in need. These opportunities may include shopping or passing on lightly used gifts for a toy drive or packing canned goods for a food drive. Other ideas might be delivering meals to those in need, reading to younger children, or stuffing/stamping envelopes for a nonprofit. Some fundraising opportunities, like operating the Salvation Army red kettle with supervision, might also be possibilities. Be sure to research and discuss how the child’s contribution makes an impact and provide verbal—rather than tangible—rewards for a job well done.
You can find parent handouts with these tips. You can also find visual supports for the holidays at the Indiana Resource Center for Autism or join the Autism Discussion Page on Facebook. Autism Speaks also offers suggestions for navigating the holidays.
When you’re in the midst of day-to-day work, it’s easy to miss the progress of the big picture. Clinicians and parents can take a moment to journal or simply write a short description of how a holiday event went on your calendar. The following year you’ll not only have a better idea of which traditions work and which are better skipped, but you’ll also have a record of how far you’ve come.
2 Comments
December 5, 2016
Heidi Britz
Full Inclusion Holidays
Wow, what a fantastic resource for our families with the holiday season upon us. Thanks for the reminders and ideas to help support our friends with social language differences during a highly social season!
December 5, 2016
Jennifer Murph
Full Inclusion Holiday
Thanks so much for these wonderful ideas. I was just wondering how I could help a nephew this holiday season who experiences these coping skills. Certainly plan to try some of these tips.
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FROM THIS ISSUE
December 2016
Volume 21, Issue 12