It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but for families with children at risk of wandering, the holidays can also be a time of anxiety and fear. Wandering is a common and potentially deadly behavior for people with autism. Last week, a teenager with autism in Orlando wandered away after a family get-together and was tragically found dead a few days later. With the holidays come temptations, such as decorations and presents, and stressors, such as crowds and noise, both of which can lead to wandering. Traveling may also take you to unfamiliar locations, through crowded traveling hubs such as airports and train stations, and away from the safety systems you’ve put in place. As hard as the holidays may be for those with special needs, there are some steps you can take to make sure that you and your family have a safe and joyous holiday.
- Use picture books to help familiarize your child with things they may encounter. There are a lot of unfamiliar sights and sounds during the holidays that your child may not know how to handle. Pick up a variety of picture books that will both tell stories that explain why so many things are different this time of year and will show pictures of things that your child may find alarming, confusing, or tempting. The better your child understands what’s happening, the less likely they are to wander either to or away from unfamiliar sites. You can also make your own picture books. Take pictures of your house, neighborhood, and town to show your child changes that are happening in their environment so that they will feel safer and more comfortable with these changes. Leave these books out so that your child may look through them on their own any time they want to.
- Introduce your child in person to new things in a controlled environment. After your child has had time to digest the picture books and become more comfortable with the coming changes, introduce them to changes in person and let them interact with them in a controlled environment. This will both make them less frightening and less tempting. For example, take your child to the mall when it isn’t busy and let them interact with the decorations.
- Decorate slowly over time. Sudden change is difficult for children with autism, so you shouldn’t decorate the entire house all at once. This can cause them a lot of stress. Instead, put the tree up one day, the lights up another day, and add presents on a third day. Prepare your child with the picture books and stories beforehand, and let them interact with what they want to during the process so that they are familiar with it.
- Know how much noise and activity your child can handle, and have a quiet place available if they need it. You know your child better than anyone else. Avoid any situations that you think may be too much for your child, such as a crowded mall the week before Christmas, and if your child seems to be getting overwhelmed, take them somewhere quiet to regroup.
- Avoid stressful situations while traveling. Airports and train stations can always be difficult, but during busy traveling seasons they can overwhelm anyone. Many of the steps already discussed can help ease stressful travel. Read picture books about flying or taking the train with your child to help them understand the process of boarding and traveling. Take them to the airport or train station a week or two before you’re traveling to help them become accustomed with the planes, trains, location, and procedures. You should also make the process of traveling as familiar and comfortable for them as you can by bringing their favorite foods, toys, or other items with you to calm them in stressful situations. You should also playact scenarios with them, both so that they know how to behave while traveling, and so that you’ve thought through how you should best behave and keep track of them while at the airport or train station. You may also want to prepare them for problems that may pop up during traveling, such as a delayed flight, so that it won’t alarm them if it occurs.
- Create a family album to prepare them for family get-togethers. If there are going to be a lot of unfamiliar faces at a family get-together, you should prepare your child by introducing them to family members through pictures before the event. Create an album of family pictures and tell them stories about each family member who will be there while showing them the pictures. Leave this album somewhere they can access whenever they want to before the event. This will help relieve the stress of meeting a lot of people at once and make them less likely to wander.
- Talk with family members about how to interact with your child. Make sure to discuss your child’s comfort levels and what they are and aren’t comfortable with so that family members don’t accidentally overstep their boundaries. If your child is uncomfortable, they’re more likely to wander. Also warn any family members who may be watching your child about their tendency to wander and make sure they know the procedures necessary to keep your child safe. Often children who wander and get lost were with grandparents, aunts, or uncles who didn’t fully understand the danger.
- Create a safe space for your child. If you’re away from home for the holiday, your child may not have their usual refuges for if a situation becomes stressful or overwhelming. This adds onto the stress already encountered because of unfamiliar people and places. When you first arrive at your holiday destination, find a place where your child can safely escape and calm down if there are issues. Introduce your child to this location, and playact scenarios with them so that they know where to go if they become stressed. Keep an eye on your child during holiday events, and take them to this location if you see them becoming overwhelmed. Make sure that it’s a location that you can easily see or access so that you don’t run into a scenario where you think they’re there but they’ve actually left the building.
Holidays can be stressful, but by following these steps, you can make sure that it’s a happy and safe holiday for everyone involved. Happy holidays!