A key defining feature of autism is the possession of sensory sensitivities. While becoming underwhelmed does pose its own difficulties, many severe autistic reactions are in response to overstimulation. Causing a feeling of being overwhelmed, overstimulation is commonly triggered by loud noises, bright lighting, and intense food tastes/smells, amongst others. Often it can cause serious social difficulties for those with autism.
Unfortunately, family gatherings tend to contain all of the above in abundance when taking place over the festive season. With Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas all around the corner, attending upcoming events with an autistic child may seem incredibly daunting. Fear not, for this uphill battle can be won; all it takes is the right preparation with your child and with guests. By accounting for several key factors in advance, you'll be sure to sail through these gatherings smoothly, or at the very least, be prepared for when you do hit choppy water!
Step 1: Prepare the guests
While family gatherings are generally an easier environment to navigate than those where attendees are unfamiliar with your child's condition, it's still worth prepping guests beforehand, to ensure that all invited are fully aware of your child's specific needs. Key topics to cover include; how to interact with your child (including how to handle eye contact), what interests them/is an easy conversation topic for them, common triggers to avoid, and one or two calming techniques for use in emergency situations.
Explain not only how your child may act, but why. As the social difficulties autistic individuals face largely manifest themselves in how they communicate, enhancing your family's understanding of your child's condition, and the relationship between autism and social development, will enable them to communicate with your child as successfully as possible. Everyone will feel more comfortable and involved, and any awkwardness will be extinguished.
If you don't have time to speak to everyone individually, a quick email covering the above points sent prior to the event will also do the job. If any of your guests would like more information, you could attach some relevant literature for them to read and boost their understanding of both autism and sensory differences.
Step 2: Prepare the host
If the gathering isn't taking place at home, make sure you speak to the host in-depth beforehand. Figure out a good 'safe space' for your child should they require alone time. Having a little sensory retreat on hand will be an absolute lifesaver should the environment become overwhelming.
Another crucial point to discuss is food. As trying new food could be the tipping point in an already highly stimulating scenario, explaining to your family member in advance that you'll be bringing your own food will aid their planning greatly, as well as avoid any unintentional offense.
Step 3: Prepare your child
The most important preparations to make prior to attending a gathering with an autistic child are undoubtedly with the child themselves. The secret to doing so effectively is to begin to prepare them far in advance. First, explain to your child that something out of their usual routine will be happening, then proceed to discuss it frequently in the weeks leading up to the event, encouraging a sense of excitement as you do so. Play music that'll be played at the gathering, explain the rules in this new location, show your child pictures of the venue, read a social narrative, and practice simple social interactions.
Essentially, the longer and more positive the event's countdown, the more comfortable your child will feel, alleviating any potential social difficulties.
The Event Itself
As foreign environments and deviation from routine are key triggers for autistic children, it remains pivotal to foster as much consistency and familiarity on the day of the event as possible. The final preparations you'll make are therefore of upmost importance. Ensure that you bring along several of your child's favorite objects, toys and multisensory tools; these will provide a calming distraction, keep sensory needs topped up, and help prevent meltdowns. Portable sensory tools perfect for sensory-friendly travel include sensory cushions and Perfect Petzzz, while portable bubble tubes are ideal for setting up in your designated safe space.
Throughout the event, remain with your child, be on the lookout for signs of emotional volatility, and reward good behavior. Chances are, simply being aware of the above factors will help make the gathering a resounding success.
For more information on sensory-friendly travel, check out our Top Tips for Traveling with Autistic Children, and for additional inspiration check out 6 Lightweight and Portable Sensory Tools. Remember, a little preparation and education on autism and social development goes a very long way. If you can adapt the environment to your child's sensory preferences and keep everyone in the loop on what's going on, your child, and family, will feel considerably more comfortable and these gatherings will be enjoyable experiences for both of you!