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Avoiding Meltdowns and Tantrums on Easter: Tips for Parents with Children on the Autism Spectrum

Easter can be a hectic, stressful time for all families. This special day can be particularly overwhelming for families of children with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA). Preparing and planning early can help parents relieve some of the holiday stress. 

Below are some very important tips to help your child circumvent Easter meltdowns and tantrums:

1. Determine how far in advance you need to prepare your child for this special day. For example, if he has a tendency to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him. Preparation can occur in various ways by using a calendar and marking the date of the holiday, or by creating a social story that highlights what will happen during the day.

2. Have alternative food items on hand. Oftentimes, children with AS and HFA want the same foods over and over again. While it's good to help your child explore new possibilities, a holiday event is not the right time to push the boundaries. If, for example, your child prefers peanut butter sandwiches to ham, mashed potatoes and green beans, this is the time to make those expectations a reality. Wait until a quieter, less stressful moment to offer new foods.

3. Have an “emergency back-up plan.” Even when you've knocked yourself out to make Easter special for your AS or HFA child, and even when things go beautifully for a while, events can quickly spin out of control. An unexpected glitch, unnoticed by everyone else, can send your child into a meltdown. Often, a quiet room or a favorite video will solve the problem. If you are visiting friends or family while your child begins to meltdown, the only good solution may be to leave.

4. Have realistic expectations. You may want enthusiastic involvement from your AS or HFA child on Easter, but it's unlikely you'll get it. All too often, the sensory and social demands of this holiday make it tough for these kids to really engage in the day’s activities. Knowing that ahead of time will help you moderate your expectations.

5. If you are traveling for Easter, make sure you have your child’s favorite foods or items available. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations. Also, prepare your child by using social stories for any unexpected delays in travel. If you are flying for the first time, it may be helpful to bring her to the airport in advance and help her to become accustomed to airports and planes. Use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when boarding and flying.

6. If you will be celebrating Easter at someone else’s home, let your host know ahead of time what to expect and what your AS or HFA child may be like. For example, explain that she will be eating different foods, or otherwise receiving "special" treatment (of course, even an autistic child needs to follow the basic rules of the house, such as no hitting, no climbing on the furniture, etc.). Also, with the help of your host, decide on a “safe haven.” Oftentimes, children with AS and HFA become overwhelmed or upset in a strange environment, and it can be hard for them to manage their feelings in these cases. If you set aside a quiet spot (e.g., a den or bedroom) for your child and let her know about it, she can quickly retreat to regroup. Ideally, you'll also equip the safe haven with a DVD or CD player so you can load a favorite video or music CD.

7. If you will be entertaining guests, plan ahead – and share your plan with your child. Kids with AS and HFA fare better when they know just what to expect. Thus, it's best to have a clear plan for your Easter event - even a simple one - that you share ahead of time. Plans don’t need to be elaborate, but they should include details (e.g., “When our guests arrive, you can either help me in the kitchen, or you can play your video games”). Also, prepare a photo album in advance of relatives and other guests who will be visiting. Allow your youngster access to these photos at all times, and go through the photo album with him while talking briefly about each family member. Furthermore, prepare family members for techniques to use to minimize anxiety or behavioral incidents, and to enhance participation. For example, help them to understand if your youngster prefers to be hugged or not, needs calm discussions, or provide other suggestions that will facilitate a smoother Easter holiday.

8. If your AS or HFA child does not do well with self-management, develop a signal or cue for him to show you when he is getting anxious, and prompt him to use time-outs as needed. You can even practice using time-outs in a calm manner at various times prior to Easter. Take him into the “time-out room” and engage him in calming activities (e.g., play soft music, rub his back, turn down the lights, etc.). Then when you notice him becoming anxious at any time during Easter, calmly remove him from the anxiety-provoking situation and take him to his time-out area.

9. If your AS or HFA youngster is on a special diet, make sure there is food available that he can eat. Also, be cautious of the amount of sugar consumed!

10. Know and understand your “special needs” child. Know how much noise and other sensory input she can take. Know her level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may take. Know her fears and those things that will make Easter more enjoyable for her. If you detect that a situation may be becoming overwhelming, help her find a quiet area in which to regroup. Also, there may be some situations that you simply need to avoid altogether (e.g., large family gatherings).

11. Preparing the AS or HFA child’s siblings. Since Easter is a time for the whole family to enjoy, it's important to make siblings aware of how stressful this day can be for their “special needs” brother or sister. Before the day begins, take time to remind your other kids of their sibling's sensory issues, communication difficulties, low frustration tolerance, and likes and dislikes. Next, share the family's strategy for avoiding potential issues and discuss what they will do if their best efforts are unsuccessful.

12. Try to maintain a sleep and meal routine that resembles the average day (if possible). Even though it’s a very special day that only happens once a year, making major changes in routine on this day will likely make for major meltdowns to go with it.

As parents, we may put pressure on ourselves to make Easter perfect, which is unrealistic. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that Easter is a time to cherish one another and the joy of being together. Whether it's scaling back or starting new traditions, celebrate this holiday in a way that makes the most sense for your unique family situation.

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