Special events are the stuff of happy memories for most of us, but for children with autism, the departure from routine and avalanche of social expectations in an unfamiliar setting full of strangers can spell potential calamity. “No surprises!” is a tactic worth the preparation and planning effort. These tips that will help see your special child through that special event:

  1. Be honest about whether your child is ready to attend such an event. If he truly can’t keep all four legs of his chair on the floor, gets easily overloaded in a room full of people and noise, still thinks a fork is for combing hair and eats applesauce with his fingers, it may be kinder to all involved to call in the sitter.
  2. Be realistic about clothing. An hour before the event is a bad time to find out that your child’s pants ride up his/her bottom when s/he sits, the collar bothers his/her throat, the fancy socks are too tight, the shirt cuffs too short, the fasteners irritating, the new-clothes smell upsetting.
  3. Visit the venue—restaurant, house of worship, unfamiliar home of friend or family— beforehand to give him a visual image.
  4. Explain what will happen at the event. What will she be expected to do? Sit quietly during the service or performance, sit separately from you, get food from a buffet, participate in an activity?
  5. If possible, arrange event seating where she will be able to see the event. It’s unrealistic to expect her to sit quietly while voices she may or may not understand drone on somewhere beyond her immediate view, which is the back of someone’s head. However, if you think your child may not make it through the entire thing, sit where she can be taken out unobtrusively.
  6. Preview the menu. If it’s not appropriate for your child, ask the hotel or restaurant for a special meal. Most are glad to do it. If special arrangements aren’t possible, bring something for your child, or feed her beforehand so she is not sitting around ravenously watching everyone else eat. When you’ve done what you can, try not to sweat it further. Holidays and events are so exciting for children that many don’t eat much anyway.
  7. Teach him a simple introduction. If he can tolerate it, a handshake. If not, let him know it’s perfectly okay because you can . . .
  8. Let him know there will be lots of people there, but he doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone if he doesn’t want to, especially strangers. Then stay close to support him in this. “Josh prefers not to hug,” delivered in a pleasant, unapologetic tone of voice is acceptable for anyone, autism or no. If you fear that this stance will offend affectionate Aunt Edith, please let that be her problem, not your child’s. Today’s children are growing up in an age where they are taught to resist unwanted touch from strangers. Your child is too young to interpret the mixed message that some unwanted touches from strangers are OK and some are not. Besides, there are too many of us out there whose overriding memories of childhood special events include being smothered by well-meaning cologne-marinated relatives, male and female. Aunt Edith or Uncle Joe don’t really want to be remembered in that manner anyway, so declining that hug is a kindness to them as well as to your child.
  9.  Give appropriate 15-, 10- and 5-minute warnings, then leave while she’s still having fun and the memories will be good. In other words, before the too-much-party meltdown.
  10. Having your child tell the host “thank you for inviting me” before leaving helps put a nice closure on the event.
  11.  And finally, never forget that many concrete-thinking children with autism will call it just the way they see it—or the way they hear it from you. Refrain from wondering aloud in the car on the way to the party if Uncle Joe (or Cousin Betsy) will over-imbibe as usual, unless you want to hear little Hannah check in later with “I want to sit with Uncle Joe (Cousin Betsy) so I can see if s/he really does drink like a fish!”

Adapted from 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s (with co-author Veronica Zysk), © 2010 by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk

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