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Holiday get-togethers can be stressful for everyone, but for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, such events can be overwhelming, many times, due to feelings of social anxiety and isolation. Although such occasions can produce stress, there is no need for individuals and their families to avoid holiday parties; the key to success is preparation to ensure that social communication strategies are proactively put in place to set individuals up for confidence and success.

What is a Social Communication Strategy?

The purpose behind having a toolbox of social communication strategies is to minimize the need to demonstrate the reactive behaviors that may occur when one feels confused or stressed in overwhelming and demanding social situations. What is commonly perceived as ‘challenging behavior’ generally results from anxiety or a lack of understanding of the expectation in such environments. When a person becomes overwhelmed and cannot communicate effectively as a listener or speaker, they tend to get frustrated. Arming oneself with proactive and rehearsed communication strategies is essential to feeling confident in any social environment.

For many individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum, having this toolbox of communication strategies is essential in order to minimize the stimuli which causes the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Strategy #1: Pick a Familiar Location for Holiday Get-Togethers

If possible, host get-togethers at a familiar, rather than unfamiliar, location. When that is not possible, it may be helpful to visit the unfamiliar location ahead of time so that one can get a “lay of the land,” to become familiar with what to expect in terms of the environment on the day of the event. Wherever the location may be, try to also identify a quiet spot where one can retreat if the demands of the environment become too overwhelming. It is important to convey the message that it is okay to take a few moments away from the crowd if the communicative requirements become too arduous.

A colleague once described how such preparation made it possible for her son diagnosed on the autism spectrum to participate in his Boy Scout Troop’s End of the Year Party. When she found out that the event was being held at a local and unfamiliar restaurant, she brought her son to visit the restaurant prior to the event with her family first. They visited later in the afternoon when the restaurant was known for being less busy, which gave her son a chance to familiarize himself with the location, setup, building, wait staff and menu. On the day of the troop party, she and her son arrived before the others so that he had the opportunity to refamiliarize himself with the location before his peers arrived. In the end, such proactive preparation was key in setting her son up to be comfortable with the expectations of the event and he had a great time with his fellow scouts.

Strategy #2: Plan the Guest List Accordingly

If an individual is sensory sensitive, they may struggle in terms of their comfort level in a noisy room full of a lot of strangers. As the parent, try to plan intimate parties with a combination of guests that your child knows and is familiar with, as well as unfamiliar guests. Let your guests know ahead of time that your child will be attending and that you might need to step away for a few moments should they feel overwhelmed. Knowledge and preparation is key.

For older individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum, preemptive social coaching focused around how to engage in reciprocal conversation in a friendly and natural way is critical. For example, reviewing and role playing the protocol for introductions can look something like this:

“You are going to be introduced to a lot of people I work with at the party. When I introduce you, you should say hello and shake the person’s hand.”

Again, practicing ahead of time and role playing are essential. Role playing assists in decreasing the anxiety associated with meeting and greeting new people so that when it happens at the actual party, the action is familiar.

Strategy #3: Establish Holiday Traditions

Remember that the familiar may be more comforting for those diagnosed on the autism spectrum to manage than the unfamiliar. Try to establish holiday traditions in your family, at home or at a relative or family friend’s house, to make get-togethers more predictable.

Examples of predictable holiday traditions may include serving traditional holiday dishes at mealtime, holiday decorating, baking, watching movies, game playing, or even sing alongs. Showing pictures of friends and family doing those same activities from previous years can be a nice holiday activity. With preparation being key, discuss ahead of time what will happen and remind the individual of when it occurred in the past.

Planning Your Social Communication Strategy

Your implementation of social communication strategies will depend a lot on your child and their readiness level with regards to participation in social settings. Giving individuals the tools to deal with frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed in social situations can help prevent the stress and anxiety sometimes associated with such events.

Remember to keep things familiar and try to plan intimate settings. Limit your guest list to people who know you or who will understand if you need to step away. Prepare individuals ahead of time by role playing social situations and telling stories of what will occur. Allow the freedom to step away if one finds themselves becoming overwhelmed.

Finally, have fun. Relax and know that your efforts will pave the way for everyone to have a joyful and relaxed holiday season.

Happy holidays everyone!


New Frontiers in Learning provides education and support services to adolescents and young adults who learn differently. We specialize in teaching social interaction at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Contact us for more information on support services and academic programs.

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