Children with ASD and Holiday Tantrums: Tips for Parents

A holiday stress poll revealed that more than 8 out of 10 Americans experience stress during the holidays. At this time of year, parents have to find a way to add extra shopping and holiday events to their already busy schedule. They have to try to entertain their children who are getting a 2-week break from school (and stuck indoors most of the time due to cold winter temperatures). 
Money, in particular, can be a cause of stress because moms and dads feel demands to purchase gifts, decorations and other items tied to the season. Parents who have kids with neuro-behavioral disorders often experience even more stress.

All children have tantrums. But when a youngster has Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), behavioral problems can be even more intense – and difficult to interpret. Intense tantrums are likely to be a result of disrupted routine, inability to communicate feelings, inflexibility, motor-planning problems, or sensory issues. 
It’s easy for AS and HFA kids to become frazzled during Christmas break. The fast pace, pressure, noise, and disruption to regular schedules can quickly result in over-stimulation and meltdowns. However, planning ahead can go a long way toward warding-off extra stress, and will help ensure that the entire family can relax and enjoy the holidays.

Below are 20 tips to tame a challenging youngster's bad temper during the holiday season. They may not be pretty, or conform to the way you thought you would be parenting, but they will get the job done and buy you some time.

1. For most AS and HFA children, intense tantrums are going to be a fact of life. Making sure your youngster is safe and supported (rather than pacified or pampered) can cut the duration and intensity of the temper tantrum. Remind yourself that, with time and age and therapy, things will get better.

2. If your youngster has a silly streak, sometimes you can use that to nip a temper tantrum in the bud. A silly song, a funny face, a nonsense word, or doing something really off-the-wall to yourself may get your youngster giggling instead of whining.

3. Since your AS or HFA youngster most likely has sensory issues, temper tantrums can be extremely hard to read. Look at the whole day, the entire environment, and the big picture. You will need solve the mystery before you can provide adequate support and problem-solving.

4. If a tantrum begins to occur, physical restraint may be necessary at times for your youngster's safety. But, try to minimize the use of physical force. A physical struggle usually makes matters worse. The problem with holding or hugging the AS or HFA youngster as a way of managing tantrums is that he will come to see physical attention as a reward for having outbursts. Thus, moms and dads may find their youngster having more – not fewer – tantrums.

5. Be realistic about the length of time you can spend in public places with your AS or HFA child. Most kids have short attention spans and little tolerance for staring at their mom’s knees during outings. Kids on the autism spectrum have even less tolerance than “typical” kids the same age.

6. Considering shopping with your husband, your brother, your best friend – anyone. A spare adult can (a) supervise your AS or HFA child while you try on clothes, (b) wait outside with him while you run into stores, or (c) gently escort an angry youngster to the car while you finish up.

7. Build in opportunities for choices along the way so that your AS or HFA youngster feels like she has some control. For instance, if you are going to take a break in mid-afternoon during a shopping trip, you could include a choice of snacks on your youngster's schedule so that he can choose between a grape drink and a fruit smoothie. On the visual schedule, the item that comes after the visit to the grocery store can show two images side by side (a grape drink and a fruit smoothie) from which your youngster can choose.

8. When your child is in the midst of a tantrum, brainstorm some possible compromises or concessions that give her the illusion of control. Very few circumstances are as black and white as they seem when you're in a power-struggle. Find some gray areas, and strategize ways to exploit them.

9. Do some behavior analysis to figure out why your youngster feels the need to fight over certain things. Often, her reason is better than your reason. There may be real sensory issues involved in scuffles over food or clothing. Refusal to sleep or use the toilet on demand may feel to your youngster like controlling the only things she truly can.

10. Give your youngster a visual schedule of the places you are going to be visiting while shopping and running errands. Also, have your youngster help you arrange the order of places on the list. In this way, he will be able to anticipate what will occur next and see a clear end-point. Anything that reduces uncertainty tends to reduce tantrums. As you are leaving one place on your afternoon outing, ask your youngster, "Where do we go next?" This will focus his attention on the schedule. 

11. Maybe you and your child are both having a bad day. Maybe you miscalculated her tolerance-level. Maybe there's something extra stressful at the shopping center. Whatever the reason, if your youngster loses the ability to hold herself together, don't threaten or cajole – just get the hell out of there, now! Also, be aware, every moment, of how you will go about doing this.

12. Hungry kids are cranky kids. And kids tend to get hungry quickly and frequently. Thus, bring along a baggie containing pieces of fresh fruit or cheese-and-crackers for snacks.

13. Figure out what you can reasonably accomplish within the time limit you've set. Be realistic. Don't count on being able to rush around feverishly, or find everything you want immediately. Schedule a few stops, then get out. Also, try to choose a time when the shopping center is least likely to be packed. And take a pass on those big sale days, or find a babysitter and leave your youngster at home.

14. Avoid power-struggles at all cost. When the parent and child engage in a power-struggle, the child usually wins. It takes two people to argue, and you have a choice as to whether you want to be one of them. You don’t have to lay down and let your youngster walk all over you. But you do want to look for ways to reach consensus that doesn't involve you saying, "You need to shape up – or else!"

15. Pack a bag of tricks. Books, iPods, GameBoys, portable DVD players, travel games – whatever can be easily toted and deployed to distract – bring it!!!

16. Pay attention to your own feelings and needs during Christmas break. Engage in activities that YOU enjoy and find relaxing. Taking care of yourself helps keep your body and mind healthy and primed to deal with demanding circumstances. Consider cutting back on television viewing, and instead get the whole family out together for a winter walk. This will promote activity and takes children away from sedentary time.

17. Sometimes, rather than scolding, it’s better to empathize. Acknowledging your youngster's point of view may take some of the wind out of the tantrum's sails.

18. Talk to your AS or HFA child about expectations for gifts and holiday activities. Be open with her if money is an issue. Depending on the youngster's age, moms and dads can use this as an opportunity to teach their child about the value of money and responsible spending.

19. Tired kids are cranky and are easily set-off. Don't plan to be out beyond your youngster's usual naptime.

20. Silliness is a good distractor, especially when traveling long distances, or waiting for extended periods of time in long lines at the Mall or at the airport. Here are a bunch of distractors that require no advance planning:
  • Arm wrestle
  • Ask for favorites (e.g., TV show, movie, book, color, game, animal, friend, etc.)
  • Be mirror images
  • Blow a raspberry on your youngster's arm
  • Blow imaginary bubbles
  • Count backward from 100
  • Count by twos, threes, fives, tens
  • Count how many words you can spot (e.g., on signs, posters, clothes, etc.)
  • Count your change
  • Count your currency
  • Crawl fingers up your youngster's back or arm like a spider
  • Do charades
  • Do songs with hand motions (with and without the words)
  • Draw a letter on your youngster's back with a finger and see if he can guess
  • Explain the meaning of various figures of speech
  • Flip a coin
  • Fold or roll up currency
  • Give a backrub
  • Give a math equation for your youngster to figure mentally
  • Give a string of math equations and ask for the answer at the end
  • Give an invisible manicure or pedicure
  • Give your youngster the name of an object and ask what color it is, what letter it starts with, what shape it is, if it's heavy or light
  • Go on a "hike" with your two fingers walking over your youngster's arms, shoulders and head
  • Guess what the people around you do for a living
  • Have a staring contest
  • Have your youngster draw a letter on your arm or back, and you do the guessing
  • Have your youngster name all his or her classmates
  • Have your youngster narrate a favorite movie
  • Have your youngster teach you some clapping games 
  • Hide something in one fist – and guess which hand?
  • Interview your youngster for a TV news show
  • Let your youngster play with your hair
  • Let your youngster try on your jewelry
  • Let your youngster try on your wristwatch
  • Look for things out the window
  • Make a Christmas or birthday wish list
  • Make a puppet face with your fist, with your thumb as the lower jaw
  • Make a stack or a snake with loose change
  • Make faces
  • Make up an acronym for your youngster's name, and the names of other family members
  • Make up math story problems
  • Make up your own secret code
  • Name a relative's birth year and have your youngster figure out how old
  • Pick a number between 1 and 10
  • Play "Rock, Paper, Scissors"
  • Play "Simon Says" 
  • Play "Truth or Dare"
  • Play paddycake
  • Play with your youngster's hair
  • Practice breathing techniques
  • Push palms together to see who can push the hardest
  • Repeat what the other person says; repeat what the other person says
  • Say "Tell me three things you did today"
  • Say words to rhyme with
  • Say words to spell
  • See how many birthdates of friends and family your youngster can recall
  • See how many people your youngster can name in your extended family
  • See how your youngster looks in your glasses
  • See who can go the longest without talking
  • Show your youngster the pictures in your wallet
  • Sing some silly songs 
  • Speak Pig Latin
  • Stack hands one atop the other, pulling out the hand at the bottom and bringing it up top
  • Take off your shoe and have your youngster practice shoe-tying
  • Take off your youngster's shoes and socks and use the socks as puppets
  • Take turns naming words for a letter of the alphabet; last one to think of a word wins, and you move to the next letter
  • Teach your youngster some clapping games
  • Tell a story, taking turns one sentence at a time
  • Think of rhyming words for items around you
  • Throw an imaginary ball
  • Thumb wrestle
  • Try guided relaxation
  • Try some tongue twisters (e.g., supercalifragilisticexpialidocious)
  • Try to make each other laugh -- last one wins
  • Try to remember one of your youngster's favorite storybooks; let your youngster correct your mistakes
  • Use your wristwatch to give a lesson in telling time
  • Use your wristwatch to time things going on around you
  • Whisper secrets, silly and serious
  • Write a poem, taking turns one sentence at a time

The holiday season can be tough of children with special needs …too many people …too much noise …too much food …too much hustle and bustle. Never mind the fact that some AS and HFA children go crazy during big family events. In any case, by using the tips listed above, you can reduce – and even eliminate – your youngster's intense tantrums during this holiday season.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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