Y.A.L.E. School News

Giving Students with Autism the Skills They Need to Get Through the Holidays

Y.A.L.E. Voorhees students with holiday decorations

As you bustle about getting ready for the holidays, imagine for a moment being a child with autism: the stranger with a white beard and a red fur coat is terrifying, new foods present a sensory overload, music is too loud, lights are too bright, and riding in the car or traveling a new route can provoke a tantrum.

While the holidays can be a challenging time of year for anyone, it can be especially hard for a child with autism. The students at The Y.A.L.E School’s Voorhees campus receive year-round instruction designed to prepare them to navigate some of these stressors.

New Foods

Y.A.L.E. student Samantha and teacher Dana practice DRO

With so many new and tasty foods on menus these days, dietary restrictions and food sensitivities can make the holidays particularly difficult for a child on the spectrum, including Samantha. Sam would jump from her seat and run to eat other students’ food during lunch, or would tantrum when she wanted to eat something that her dietary restrictions didn’t allow.

Our staff used a waiting program—referred to in the teaching literature as “differential reinforcement of other behaviors,” or DRO—to help her gradually learn to increase the length of time she could wait for food, and to help her tolerate being around foods she could not have. In the beginning, Sam could wait only ten seconds, but now she is comfortable waiting two minutes before receiving a desired food. The skill makes a real difference in Samantha’s life because she also uses it at home—making dinner and holiday get-togethers less stressful for everyone.

Long Rides and Changes in Routine

Y.A.L.E. student Nikoli with iPad

Seven-year-old Nikoli used to have a difficult time on long car rides—a holiday ritual for many families. To help him and his parents, The Y.A.L.E School took teaching ‘on the road’—literally—providing direct instruction in the car. Staff rewarded Nikoli for appropriate behaviors, and over time, the car rides became longer and longer. Once he learned the skill, staff showed his parents how to use the strategy. Nikoli now uses a token board when he goes out, which serves as a visual reminder to help motivate him during longer holiday car rides.

Social and Sensory Overload

Y.A.L.E. students Nikoli and Sam with holiday decorations

For some students, the sounds and sights of the winter holidays can be jarring. To help students become more accustomed to the all of the Santas, menorahs, flashing lights, candles, and loud music they may encounter, teachers at Y.A.L.E. start early in the year. During morning meeting, the teacher may show pictures or a video, or may introduce holiday-themed items into daily instruction to help de-sensitize students. Teachers play holiday music during recess to help prepare students for the music they may hear in the car or at the mall. For some students, it can be difficult to adjust to unfamiliar people coming into their home or classroom. The Y.A.L.E School’s Voorhees campus hosts holiday events throughout the year, including a Halloween walk and Thanksgiving feast, to help students adjust and become more accustomed to new faces and changes in routine.

A Team Approach

Y.A.L.E. student Nikoli with his parents at the Y.A.L.E. Voorhees Thanksgiving feast

Y.A.L.E. teachers collaborate with board-certified behavior analysts, the school principal, and especially parents to develop strategies to help students navigate the holiday season and secure a toolbox of skills to help them in the future. “These life skills—riding in the car, waiting at mealtime and tolerating change—need to be used at home, so our teachers have frequent contact with parents,” said Ann Davidson, Director at the Voorhees campus. “We help them through parent training, education and support, and they in turn, help us gain more insight and understanding of issues they face, not just during the holiday season, but all year long.”

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