A Perk of of living in Malaysia is that we have the opportunity to celebrate many religious festivals throughout the year. For most typically-developing children, festival celebrations are something to get excited about! From receiving gifts, to decorating the house and spending time with family and friends. However, these events may be taxing for children on the autism spectrum, presenting some challenging behaviors as a result of the overwhelming environment.
With Chinese New Year round the corner, we have come up with some tips and strategy plans to share with you on how you can prepare for your kiddos to have a successful celebration this festive season.
Determine potential triggers
As you might notice, most children with Autism are sensitive to specific stimuli or certain environmental triggers which may result in them getting upset. Therefore, noting down the aspect of a Chinese New Year gathering that might be challenging for them is an important initial step. Some potential triggers could be:
- Meeting unfamiliar people
- Tolerating a crowd (meal gatherings, red packet exchange)
- Tolerating loud sounds (firecrackers, cheering)
Come up with a tolerance/desensitization plan
Once you have determined what will be triggering for your child, it will be necessary to systematically build your child's tolerance towards the triggers as this will help desensitize your child when the triggers are present. Before starting a desensitization plan, it is good to keep in mind that you should start at a level where your child is comfortable at tolerating.
For meeting unfamiliar people, you may want to start bridging the expected behavior from a level your child is comfortable to speak. You can start with your child saying 'hi' or waving, to mummy, to daddy, to a sibling, and then to one new person. Once your child is successful at this, you can work your way up to saying 'hi' to two, three, or four people and at the same time systemically reducing the people that he/she is familiar with. By building the child's momentum of saying 'hi' to people he/she is comfortable with, there are higher chances that your child will be more willing to interact with unfamiliar people.
For tolerating a crowd, you may want to start with just having two unfamiliar person in the same room and when your child is successful at staying calm, systematically work up the amount to three, four, five, etc. Once your child is calm at the presence of others, you can introduce some social activities such as eating at the table together to stimulate a family reunion dinner setting.
An important step to remember is to always reinforce (reward) your child when he/she is successful at each level of the desensitization plan! By reinforcing your child being able to keep calm when triggers are present, we are essentially teaching them that, the calm behavior is what we are looking for. It is also important to note that you should only move on to the next level when your child shows consistency at his/her current level after a few good rounds of practice.
Verbalize every step
"We are going to go inside now"
"It's going to be loud but don't worry, I have your headphones here."
"We are going to say hi to three new people okay?"
Verbalizing each step, or 'priming' your child, gives them a sense of security as they will know what to expect. Even as adults, we tend to feel anxious if we attend an event without knowing what it's about or who will be there. With many unfamiliar stimuli, it can be daunting and challenging for children with ASD to cope.
If your child has higher comprehension capabilities and is able to learn through visuals, having a story board with words and pictures is also a good way to prime your child. Go through the story board several times a day leading up to the actual event helps in desensitizing the whole situation. In your story board, it is good to keep in mind to include details such as:
-The time of arrival and when you will be leaving the place
-Location of where the event will take place
-General itinerary of the activities that will take place (lou sang, red packet exchange, etc)
-People your child will meet (you may show them pictures if you have)
-Behaviors that are expected from your child (saying "hi/thank you", smiling for photos etc.)
Sometimes it helps giving your child a schedule. This will help with predictability of what will happen next and when they can go home.
Bring redirection activities
In the case of your child feeling overwhelmed by any triggers, always pack a few distractions to prevent an escalation of behavior (to a tantrum, self-injury, aggression, etc). You can prepare what to bring based on the triggers that had previously been identified earlier. Some good items for distraction can be:
-Highly preferred toy
-Devices such as iPad/iPhone
-Their favourite food/drink.
Practice expected behaviors
Besides running the desensitization plan, it is also advisable to teach behaviors that your kid is expected to have during the Chinese New Year visit. Some of the expected behaviors may be:
- Wishing "Happy Chinese New Year"
- Giving the "Gong Xi Fa Cai" gesture
- Saying "thank you" upon receiving a red packet
- Smiling for the camera
The tip and strategies above are just simple guidelines to help you prepare your kiddos for Chinese New Year. As each child with ASD is different, some of the strategies may need to be individualized to their specific needs and functioning level.
Here at Autism Link, we specifically target issues such as these and prepare our kiddos accordingly! We find that it provides that little bit of extra support for them and their families. Hope this article will help you and your kiddos have a successful Chinese New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai everyone and have a happy holidays ahead! :)