Developing Relationships on the Autism Spectrum 

developing loving relationships when you have autism
mom hugging son

In the United States, our culture has predetermined ideas of what love looks like between parent and child as well as between adults. As most of us have experienced, relationships can be complicated, autism or not. And developing relationships when you have autism is just as important as it is for those who don’t. Autism can cause differences in communication, understanding of context and sensory perceptions. As a result, people often believe that individuals with autism don’t understand or even require love and loving relationships. However, that is simply not the case.  

The expression of love starts at a very early age as parents and others are teaching skill sets that children will need for the rest of their lives. Here in our clinics our team witnesses the many ways kids with autism connect with their therapists and show love. And, as professionals deeply invested in the wellness of our clients and their families, many of our team members read and learn about some of the less commonly discussed aspects of life on the spectrum — and that includes love. 

In this post we share some wisdom from our President & Founder, Jamie McGillivary. She shares what love for someone with autism may look like and how to help foster the ability to develop loving relationships. 

Start with understanding and acceptance 

Because love is universal and not limited by age, we will start with a couple of concepts about love on the spectrum for parents and loved ones to consider. 

First, it’s important to recognize there is a notable difference between feeling love and behaving in a loving way. And this difference applies to everyone, not only those with autism. Jamie says that when we consider autism as a way of being, rather than a disorder, an individual’s response to love makes a lot more sense. Essentially, loving behavior can look very different from one person to the next. Just because a person isn’t comfortable with hugging or kissing, doesn’t mean they don’t feel love. 

Second, individuals don’t have to excel at recognizing the emotions of others to have emotions of their own. Jamie points out a great irony regarding this idea. “As therapists, we teach the skills of putting yourself into another’s shoes, but, as so-called neurotypical people, do we do this when interacting with people with autism?”  

This concept is called “theory of mind”. It is the ability to understand the experiences of others, even if they don’t coincide with our own. For those of us who don’t have autism, we can show the greatest amount of love simply by extending understanding and acceptance. 

Expressing and receiving love 

Parents can gain a lot of understanding about how their child with autism, as well as anyone else in their lives, shows and accepts love by reading The Five Love Languages, a book series by Gary Chapman. There is a kid’s version too. 

The 5 Love Languages

Everyone has a preference as to what feeling loved means for them. The 5 Love Languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. You can learn more about each of the five love languages through Champman’s book, as well as in our post 5 Ways to Express Love to Your Child with Autism

Learning how your child expresses and receives love is an important skill. Jamie provides this example, “You can learn about your child’s love languages by observing their behavior. Are they in your space, do they say ‘mom, mom, mom, mom, mom’? This gives you a clue that they need you to fill their bucket with quality time.” 

If you sense that your child is feeling less connected, it might be that you or others aren’t communicating in their preferred love language. Receiving a gift can mean very little to someone who craves praise and acknowledgment. Some kids with autism want hugs but will never give them from the front. Thay may need a hug from the back or the side for it to be acceptable to them on a sensory level. 

Additionally, a common misconception is that kids with autism don’t want to be social. In reality, they may feel disconnected because you are not communicating in a way that’s meaningful to them. 

A common scenario most parents can relate to is when a preschooler wants to play with a peer but doesn’t know how to express they want to play.  So instead, they kick over the peer’s just-completed block tower. And the reverse of this is when a child asks another to come play but is ignored by the nonverbal child. The children in both scenarios have a need and a desire to be with each other. But unfortunately aren’t able to communicate it in a way that the other understands. 

This is called “negative reciprocal actions,” and when they add up, the person trying to connect eventually gives up. Socially, this is where we see a difference. Kids with autism express their needs on their own terms.  It’s important to learn how to speak their language of love.  

Setting a relational foundation 

As parents, you are the first role models for loving relationships. If you are accepting and open to your child’s differences, it opens the door to enter your child’s world. Follow your child’s lead and be a detective in how they communicate with you. When you figure that out, you will get more back in return. 

By recognizing your child’s way of connecting with others, it goes beyond your own parent/child relationship. You are helping them express their need for love to others. This sets the stage for teaching pivotal social interactions that can help them make deep friendships and develop loving relationships. Developing a connection with your child – or grandchild, friend, relative or love interest — with autism, is possible. The key is figuring out how they express and receive love.. 

Toilet Training Tips for Kids with Autism

toilet training and autism

Toilet training is a fundamental skill to teach all kids. But it can be a tricky skill for children with autism to master. Some parents may find toilet training a smooth process, while others find it a huge battle. Many parents try to start the process and feel discouraged, then decide to take a break. Wherever you are in your child’s journey to using the toilet independently, know that success is definitely possible.

Is Your Child Ready for Toilet Training?

The first step in helping your child with autism use the toilet? Determine if they’re ready. Our Director of Clinical Standards, Dr. Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, suggests a list of pre-requisites to consider before starting the toilet training process.

Can your child…

  • sit on the toilet or potty chair for a few minutes?
  • pull pants up or down?
  • hold urine for at least 30 minutes?
  • imitate skills such as sitting and wiping?
  • find the bathroom or potty chair in the house?

Your child doesn’t need to be proficient in each of these steps all at once to start toilet training. However, keep in mind that the process will be easier and more successful if your child can complete most steps first. If your child struggles with fine motor strength and control, consider occupational therapy (OT). OT can help with skills such as pulling pants up and down, wiping, etc. Additionally, there should be minimal behaviors occurring with bathroom use. If behaviors arise often, be sure to address them prior to starting the toilet training process.

Reinforcement and Encouragement

It’s important to utilize reinforcement and encouragement when working on toilet training your child with autism. You can reinforce their success in using the toilet in a variety of ways, including:

  • Food, such as candy or a small treat
  • A sticker chart
  • A highly preferred activity such as tablet time, a game or favorite toy

Along with reinforcers, use lots of verbal encouragement. Make sure it’s specific and descriptive: “I love how you asked to go to the potty.” Or “You did an amazing job sitting on the toilet for x amount of time!” etc.

Barriers to Toilet Training

Toilet training kids with autism can definitely have its setbacks. You might encounter challenging behaviors from your child, such as fear of using the toilet, refusing to use it, misusing toilet paper or other materials, or tantrums when encouraged to use the toilet.

Some children with autism might be hesitant to use the toilet due to sensory issues. If this is the case for your child, identify the sensory issue. It could be that the toilet seat is uncomfortable, they may feel cold, or feel afraid of the loud flushing sound. Perhaps utilize a toilet seat and let your child hold a stuffed animal or toy while sitting to help them feel safe and comforted.

Another barrier to toilet training is constipation. Kids with autism can be prone to constipation due to selective eating. If you notice your child struggling to void with bowel movements, consult your pediatrician.

General Tips for Toilet Training Kids with Autism

  1. Take toilet training one step at a time! While many parents are eager for their child to gain independence in the bathroom, try not to rush through the process.
  2. Have your child use pull ups or underwear as they transition from diapers.
  3. Use visuals in the bathroom such as a step-by-step laminated sheet with photos to help your child remember the toilet use process.
  4. When starting toilet training, plan a time to be at home with your child (Ideally, a week).
  5. Take data. You could create a chart, take notes in a notebook, or find a data sheet that works for you through an online search. For each toilet session, list the date, time, accident, success, location, and any independent requests.
  6. Make the experience fun and rewarding! Ensure your child is comfortable on the toilet by having them pick out a preferred toilet seat. Keep toys and books in the bathroom and even play music. The more enjoyable the experience is for your child, the more likely they will pick up skills and move towards independence.

If your child receives ABA therapy, check in with your child’s BCBA. They can give suggestions specific to your child as well as general support throughout toilet training.

Toilet training, though necessary, is a huge task to undertake as a parent. While it can be discouraging at times, remember to celebrate the successes. And with encouragement and consistent reinforcement, your child will learn in his or her own time.

Winter Activities for Kids with Autism

boy plays outside in snow.

We can all probably agree—winter is often hard to get through. Cold, icy days nix the option for frequent outdoor play. If your child needs some cabin fever relief, we’ve compiled some DIY winter activities for kids with autism. These projects are ridiculously easy to assemble and extremely cost-effective—it really doesn’t take much for kids to have fun! Many of these activities require similar materials that you can buy in bulk and have on hand. Additionally, these winter activities for kids with autism promote sensory input, social interaction, and fine and gross motor skills.  

Indoor Winter Activities

Create fake snow

This is a sensory activity that incorporates textures. It’s great for kids who seek tactile sensory experiences. All you need is some shaving cream and baking soda for some fun with fake snow. Squirt some shaken shaving cream into a bowl or plastic bin. Add baking soda until the mixture reaches a moldable consistency. Kids will love squishing their hands in the “snow,” building mini snow people, and creating little winter wonderland worlds. 

Our expert team of Occupational Therapists (OT’s) share the importance of sensory activities like this one. “The combination of soft, squishy textures with the coarseness of the baking soda provides a variety of input to the tactile system that is both alerting and regulating,” said one of our OT’s. They also suggest having your child create the snow with you, which increases processing and executive functioning skills. “For example, have your child measure and/or pour out the ingredients with you and stir them together to combine. This is a great naturalistic opportunity to incorporate fine motor skills, tool use, and bilateral integration as your child stirs while stabilizing the bowl.” 

Materials Required:

  • Plastic bowl or bin
  • Shaving cream
  • Baking soda

Frozen treasure hunt

This winter activity only requires a little bit of prep! If your child loves “heavy work,” or activities that involve applying and/or receiving pressure, be sure to have them try this. According to our OT Team, “heavy work is organizing for the proprioceptive system, helps your child integrate new information about their body’s position in space to develop body awareness, and incorporates pressure regulation skills.” 

To create, fill a plastic tub with water and place items in it such as toys, plastic snowflakes, pinecones, or other winter-themed objects. Place the bin in the freezer overnight until it’s frozen solid. The next day, remove the ice block from the bin by running warm water over the bottom. Place the block in a larger container and have kids “dig” around for the items. Digging tools can be silverware, toy hammers, or any other child-safe item. Picking at ice keeps kids engaged and motivated to find the treasures! For safer tool options, we suggest having your child use basters or eyedroppers to dispense warm water across the ice to melt it.

Our OT’s like activities like this, as they provide excellent natural opportunities to develop fine motor skills, pincher grasp and finger strengthening as well as visual motor skills. Using motivating characters, figures or toys will be more likely to hold your child’s attention. 

Materials Required:

  • Plastic tub
  • Plastic toys, snowflakes, foam cut outs, pinecones, berries, anything winter-themed
  • Silverware, toy hammers, eyedroppers, basters

Make snow ice cream

There’s no better way to utilize fresh snow than making it into a tasty treat. Collect 8 to 12 cups of clean snow. Add vanilla extract and condensed milk and stir into snow. Add more snow if needed to reach an ice cream-like consistency. Scoop into bowls or cones and add toppings! 

Materials Required:

  • 8-12 cups clean snow
  • Vanilla extract (or other flavorings, like chocolate syrup)
  • Condensed milk
  • Toppings such as candy, sprinkles, crushed cookies, etc.

Build an Indoor Fort

Gather some comfy pillows and blankets to help your child build a relaxing space of their own. You can even create a special bin/area full of your child’s favorite comforting items for this specific purpose. Incorporate reading, pajamas, a movie or even a nap into this- everything is better in a fort! 

Sensory Winter Activities

Squish bags

Sensory squish bags are a hit for children who love squishy things. And fortunately, they’re super easy and cheap to make—a perfect winter activity idea for kids with autism. Fill a sealable plastic bag with hair gel and add snowflake glitter, beads, confetti, water beads, buttons, beans, or anything else that would entertain your child. You can also seal the edges of the bag with patterned packing tape to ensure the bag won’t open. Check out this snowman sensory bag to stick with the winter theme. 

Materials needed:

  • Sealable plastic bag, any size desired
  • Glitter, beads, confetti, water beads, buttons, beans
  • Clear hair gel
  • Food coloring (just a drop or two)
  • Patterned packing tape

Sensory bin 

Sensory bins are great for fine motor skill practice. Fill a bin with cotton balls, foam snowflakes and snow people. Give your child fine motor tools such as plastic tweezers and ball scoopers and let them practice picking up items. Or they can just use their hands!

Materials needed:

  • Plastic bin
  • Cotton balls
  • Foam snowflakes, snow people, other winter themed shapes
  • Plastic tweezers, ball scoopers, anything that promotes fine motor skills (such as this tool kit)

Sensory bottle

Many kids with autism are entertained by just watching sensory-pleasing items with color, texture, and shine. Sensory bottles are yet another winter activity for kids with autism with very simple assemblage required. Find a clear water bottle with a screw-on cap. Next, put wintery glitter and snowflake confetti in the bottle. Use a drop or two of blue food coloring if desired, fill with water, screw the cap on, and shake it up. (Sealing the cap with glue is a good idea for children who might be tempted to open it.) 

Materials needed:

  • Clear water bottle
  • Glitter, snowflake confetti, etc.
  • Food coloring
  • Glue

Outdoor Winter Activities

Snow maze

After a big snow, there’s often lots of sledding or the building of snow people. But have you ever tried making a snow maze? Create a twisty path in the snow with your feet (or use a shovel) and pack the snow down. You can make one big maze or multiple small ones to keep kids entertained and active for a while. 

Tic Tac Toe in snow

Use rocks, leaves, sticks, paint, or pinecones to create a Tic Tac Toe board in the snow. Maybe organize a family tournament!

Paint snow

In the midst of a white wonderland, color is pleasing to the eye. Have kids create their own colorful outdoor artwork by creating a frame with sticks and painting within it. Be sure to use non-toxic, water-based paint to avoid clothing stains. Using jars to hold the paint works well, as you can sturdily plant them in the snow. 

Materials needed:

  • Non-toxic, water-based paint
  • Jars
  • Sticks or rocks
  • Paintbrushes

Kindness rocks

Based off The Kindness Rocks movement, this activity is a fantastic way for kids to create messages of kindness. And with all the negativity in the world, we need all the kindness we can get. On winter days with less or no snow, have kids collect smooth rocks. Clean the rocks. On the back of the rock, write or paint #TheKindnessRocks project. Then decorate and help kids write kind messages on the front. Seal with an outdoor sealant spray to prevent fading. 

Materials needed:

Social Activities

Parallel Play

Encouraging your child to give or share a toy with a playmate can be an effective play technique, if appropriate. If this is not something easily attainable for your child, even inviting a peer over and having them sit next to your child in the same room while engaging in a separate activity can benefit your child’s social skill development.   

Games

Any type of game, whether it be a simple game of Simon Says or a board game that promotes imitation, turn-taking and cooperation can be a great way to get social with your child. Remember, it doesn’t matter so much if the game is played correctly- it’s all about participation and fun!  

Be Mindful of Screen Time

While it may be challenging to reduce your child’s electronics use, it is important to monitor and be aware of how much time they are spending “plugged in”, especially during the winter when it is easy for them (and you!) to lose track of time while being indoors. Instead, encourage other activities like reading a book or putting together a puzzle.  For more ideas on managing screen time, check out this post

We hope these winter activities for kids with autism provide some fun during these long cold days, while also providing sensory and fine motor input. We’d love to hear about your experiences as well. Please comment below!

Autism-Friendly Activities Around Metro Detroit 

autism-friendly activities in metro detroit

‘Tis the season, which means winter break is upon us! For many, this equates to extra down time to relax and play. But for children on the autism spectrum, this “down time” is out of their routine. A change in routine can cause anxiety or trigger behaviors. That’s why, for parents and caretakers of children with autism, it is helpful to have some autism-friendly activities in mind. Doing so helps to ensure an active and enjoyable holiday break for everyone.  

An amazing BCBA on our team, Megan Tucci, MA, BCBA, LBA, compiled a list of autism-friendly activities and events in Metro Detroit to share with her clients. And we thought it would be awesome to share it with all of you, as well!  

Sensory-Friendly Events and Activities Around Metro Detroit:

  1. AMC Sensory Friendly Film Showing : These sensory film-showings feature lowered sound and dim lighting. Patrons are able to bring their own dietary-friendly snacks and kids are free to “dance, walk, shout or sing” or move about the aisles. There are no previews or advertisements before the movies. The movies are geared toward children ages 5 & up and showings begin at 10 am on Saturdays. Wednesday evening movie showings, which may be geared toward an older audience, begin at 7 pm. The participating locations in southeast Michigan are Sterling Heights, Clinton Township, and Livonia.  If you do this, we suggest calling the location to get information about available showtimes.
  2. The Henry Ford : Many areas of The Henry Ford in Dearborn offer sensory-friendly kits that include noise-cancelling headphones, quiet spaces, and sensory-friendly maps. Staff members have also received special training from the Autism Alliance of Michigan.  
  3. Michigan Science Center : This fun and uniquely cool educational space offers “sensory backpacks”. They contain headphones, sunglasses, laminated maps, and fidget toys. The backpacks also have various sensory-friendly interactives.
  4. Detroit Zoo: At all times, the Detroit Zoo offers sensory bags equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads to guests who are prone to feeling overwhelmed by new environments. Additionally, staff receive training through the Michigan Autism Safety Training to recognize and handle sensory needs. For children who love lights, check out Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo this holiday season. They have dates available through early January! 

Other Autism-Friendly Events and Activities  

  1. Urban Air : This large trampoline park offers the chance for kids of all ages to jump, fly, climb, and participate in a variety of attractions and activities! 
  2. Legoland Discovery Center: This center, located inside Great Lakes Crossing Mall, contains several attractions inspired by – you guessed it – Legos! Experience a 4D Theater, have fun on rides, and of course, build some legos! 
  3. Outdoor Adventure Center: This unique interactive “outdoor” museum is indoors yet has all of the exciting features the great outdoors brings. The Center includes some awesome exhibits to enjoy. Sensory-friendly options have ended for the year, but keep your eyes peeled for the center’s 2024 schedule of specialized sensory-friendly days!  
  4. iFly Detroit: This fun, indoor skydiving experience is well suited for older, braver kids who are ready for an adventure! iFly Detroit is located in Novi and offers an “All Abilities” program specifically designed for those with physical or cognitive special needs.  
  5. MetroParks Holiday Lights/Events: It’s too late for this year but take note for next December. Each MetroPark hosts a different seasonal event. Events include Lights on the Trails, crafts, Holiday Lights at the Farm, Snacks with Santa, and much more! 

NOTE: We are not making specific recommendations for readers to participate in these autism-friendly activities. That is up to the discretion of parents in choosing activities they and their children participate in. 

AAC: What It Is and Why It’s Important for Children with Autism

There are many means of communication used in our world. The most common ones used today are spoken words, gestures, eye gaze, facial expressions, print, sign language, and even GIFs. When it comes to individuals with speech and language delays, it is possible to augment and provide alternative options for them to efficiently communicate with others. Children with autism, Down syndrome, and other speech and language struggles benefit from access to additional communication tools. In this post we will explain what AAC is and why it’s important for children with autism. 

AAC stands for Augmented Alternative Communication. What does augmentative mean, you might be wondering? Augmentative simply means to make something greater by adding to it, and alternative, as we know, is to have multiple options or possibilities available in a situation. So, when thought about it in literal terms, AAC is something every person uses to communicate. 

Types of AAC

There are two different types of AAC. The first type is what most people use in addition to or instead of verbal communication, which includes some of the examples we listed above. However, many children (and adults) with an autism diagnosis utilize aided AAC, which can be “high tech” or “low tech”. Low tech AAC can be anything that involves using pictures or icons to communicate. High tech describes communication apps on an iPad or tablet, such as TouchChat or LAMP Words for Life. Any type of computer with a voice, or even large buttons that talk, would also be considered high-tech AAC.  

Myths Surrounding AAC

When it comes to AAC, many people, including parents and professionals, are misled by the myths that have historically surrounded it. The most common myth is that AAC will hinder speech development. While this may seem easily believable, we have seen many examples in our clinic and elsewhere of children who build more speech due to having another opportunity as a bridge to spoken language.  

Another popular myth regarding AAC is that it’s not necessary so long as the child or person can communicate their basic wants and needs. At Healing Haven, we support not just the very basics of communication, but each individual’s growth and independence. This means making friends, expressing ideas, showing interest in hobbies and activities, showing love, and much more. Everyone deserves the opportunity to do these things.  

Effective Use of AAC

While AAC, whether high tech or low tech, is a bountiful means of communication, there are reasons it may not be effective, which can be discouraging to families.  

AAC is most successful when parents, caregivers, and school staff have been educated to personalize the device and present models appropriately. Presenting models “appropriately” may look different for different children based on their language level, processing time and interests. When these factors are not taken into account, ineffectiveness and inefficiency can result.  

It is important that families who are adjusting to a new form of AAC have the resources and support they need to effectively integrate the form of communication into their child’s life. At Healing Haven, this is a large part of the parent training we offer to each individual and their family. 

Teaching AAC with Spoken Word Communication

One must remember that AAC is just another avenue to communication for those with language and speech processing challenges. The autistic community themselves say they need more than one avenue to communicate. Many times, speech and language professionals teach an individual AAC and spoken word communication simultaneously. Through the therapy we provide at our clinic, the two will always go hand in hand. It is important to us that every child has more than one option in their modes of communication. 

It is important to understand your child’s style of language processing to personalize the vocabulary and provide appropriate models. Please reference the “User Tips for AAC” section below to learn more and see the link to our blog detailing Analytical Language Processing and Gestalt Language Processing. The Speech and Language Pathologists at our clinic are highly skilled in helping parents and children personalize AAC based on the child’s style of language processing. 

Setting Your Child Up for Success with their AAC Device

There are many steps you can take to ensure your child with autism has a pleasant and successful AAC experience. While some of these may be easily overlooked, they are vital in encouraging and teaching your child to communicate. Some of these steps are:  

  • Ensure the AAC device is always readily available. This includes having necessary AAC accessories such as cases with handles and straps.  
  • Learn how to edit and add new content to your child’s AAC device.  
  • Allow your child to explore the device as much as they please. Even if it seems like the child is just playing or “stimming” with the device, this interaction is still helping to familiarize the child with the AAC and its functions.  
  • Model consistently and often on the AAC device.  
  • Ensure everyone involved with helping your child communicate (family members, school staff, caregivers, etc.) knows how to effectively and comfortably model language on the device. This includes knowing and educating yourself on your child’s style of language processing. 
  • Do as much as you can to encourage your child’s use of the device. This could look like modeling on the device to talk about your child’s favorite cartoon character, food, or activity, or creating communication opportunities that are appealing to your child and their interest.  
  • Always ask your child’s SLP for help when needed. These individuals are AAC experts and should be able to help with whatever you may need to be as fluent as possible with AAC communication! At our clinic, the SLPs and BCBAS collaborate and work seamlessly to support the child’s communication. You have a team of resources. 
  • Lastly, ensure the form of AAC is consistent across all professionals and/or providers (the child’s entire team should be using the same type and same brand of high or low tech AAC). 

User Tips for AAC

When it comes to children with speech-language deficits, communication is most effective when it is used naturally. With that, we encourage you to follow your child’s lead with their communication attempts and always react with praise at any attempt they make to communicate. It is best to simply model alternative ways to communicate, as opposed to requiring a response from your child before giving them what they want.  

Many children with autism are Gestalt Language Processors (GLPs). For GLPs, there are four stages of language development. What stage your child is at determines the setup of their AAC device. If your child is at a stage 3 or higher, or once they get to that point, they are working on the freeing of single words and the combining of 2-3 words. This is where it’s important to know the difference between core vocabulary and fringe words.  

Many AAC devices have a core board, which is a page on the device, typically the main page when opening the app, that includes both “core” words and phrases and “fringe” words. The exact configuration of these words depends on the device and app being used. You can then use these words and phrases to help your child build their vocabulary and customize it to fit their wants and needs. Alternatively, if your child uses lower-tech AAC, such as Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), you and your child’s speech team can customize the words based off of the child’s interests and needs.

AAC Resources

If your child has an assigned Speech Language Pathologist, they will be your best AAC resource. Additionally, the internet is abundant with resources that can help you navigate and utilize your child’s AAC device. Here are some of the top websites we recommend to parents of AAC users:  

And of course, learn more about AAC by connecting with our speech team at Healing Haven, operated by Gigi’s Kids Speech and Language Therapy, which the information in this post comes from.  

We hope this post has helped enrich your knowledge of AAC and answered some questions you may have had surrounding it. If your child has benefited from the use of AAC, please feel free to share in the comments. Let’s continue to make communication all-inclusive! 

Holiday Stress Management Tips for Autism Families

The holiday season can be full of wonderful activities, parties and family gatherings. But there is also an added level of stress during the holidays because of the extra “hustle and bustle”. Shopping, baking, decorating, wrapping and hosting – how much can we add to our plates? And when you are also parenting a child with autism or other special needs, the demands of the holidays can become overwhelming. With input from our Counselors on staff, we’ve compiled some holiday stress management tips to help you enjoy this season. 

Holiday Stress Management Tips

1. Acceptance

Something that may seem obvious is the ability to accept your child as they are and be flexible about their needs. An acceptance mindset can be a significant driver to reducing your overall stress. Mentally prepare yourself that during this busy season your child may engage in more self-soothing behaviors to cope with the changes in their routine and added stress. They also may not want to interact with all the extra family and friends that you see this time of year. Giving your child some control and choices may help as well. You can offer controlled choices about the time they go and leave from gatherings, if they want to go somewhere, or where some decorations should go. 

2. Flexibility

Also look at your own expectations around the holidays and try to be more flexible.  Realize that it’s OK that your child may not feel the same way about the holidays as other kids. Your child may not like the traditional holiday activities, so stop and ask yourself the motivation behind doing something (like taking a picture with Santa). If the motivation is that it’s a “childhood tradition”, it’s not worth having your child stress out, panic or go into a full meltdown getting near Santa. Try to develop a flexible mindset. If you have to make a last-minute change because your child becomes over stimulated, that’s not only supporting your child and their needs, but also a self-care practice for you! 

3. Set Boundaries

You know your child and how and where they are at their best. If your entire family is gathering at Grandma’s house, there are ways you can still participate. Plan to stay for an hour so that you leave before your child reaches their sensory maximum. It may be helpful to communicate ahead of time the boundaries you are setting with your family members to avoid any misunderstanding. Here is a great resource to share with family or friends who are hosting holiday gatherings. And thanking them for understanding the choices you need to make will help them to feel appreciated for being flexible. 

You could also plan to arrive at gatherings early in order to allow your child to slowly acclimate to the number of people showing up in real-time, which could help make them feel less overwhelmed. 

4. Say No

With so many invitations, activities and options presented to us during the holidays, we can end up finding ourselves in situations that may take away from the enjoyment. Furthermore, saying yes to an event when you actually want to say no can lead to feeling overwhelmed and also experiencing resentment. If you know your child will not do well at someone’s house, you can kindly decline an invitation. Remember, all you need to say is “I am sorry, we cannot make it – thank you for the invitation.” You do not need to give a reason or explain why you cannot make it to the event. It can be hard to say no, but if it will reduce the stress in your life, you need to do it for your own sanity. 

5. Pace It Out

Decorating your home for Christmas can be fun for some, but sensory overload for others. If you gradually get your decorations out, your child can acclimate to the new lights, smells and sounds slowly. Progressively introducing new decor into the living areas of the house allows your child to gradually adapt to the environment. Otherwise, you risk overloading them with the changes all at one time. 

It may also be useful to take time to familiarize your child with the destination or venue of any gathering as well as the guests that will be attending. This can be done through photos or preparing a photo album they can hold and refer to during the event, as well as reviewing it beforehand. This can help reduce the chance of surprises and help them feel comfortable in knowing the environment and people they will see.   

6. Find Balance

An important holiday stress management tip is to work in some quiet, soothing activities with your kids to help them balance all the additional sensory input that comes during this time of year. And those quiet moments can benefit you, too. Furthermore, find balance in the ability to indulge in the yummy treats of the season without feeling guilty. It is common for healthy eating habits to take a backseat this time of year. But if you can balance out the sweets indulgence by increasing your water intake each day, you may feel more positive about enjoying the holiday treats. 

It’s also important to make sure to set some time aside to indulge in self-care activities that help you relax, have fun, or feel energized. These activities could include talking with a friend, going for a walk, reading, listening to music, or whatever else you enjoy. The important part of self-care is not so much what you do – it’s that you make time do it.   

7. Keep Structure

You and your child have schedules – daily, nightly, weekly routines. Keep as many things consistent as possible. For example, if you have self-care activities such as attending a workout class or getting your nails done, keep that commitment even during the busyness of the holidays. If your child has a nightly routine of taking a bath before bed, leave the holiday event with enough time to allow your kiddo to complete their routine. Keeping your typical agendas will set you and your family up for success during this often hectic time. And if a change in your child’s routine is unavoidable, creating a holiday visual schedule can help them prepare and process what is coming. Here’s another great resource for holiday social stories and visual schedules

8. Avoid Perfectionism

So many caregivers are perfectionists by nature and the holidays can intensify the desire for things to be “just right.” Though this may be difficult, try and focus on the big picture of the holiday season by avoiding getting caught up in the little details. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect, write it down or say it out loud – “things do not need to be perfect this holiday season!” 

9. Consider Dietary Restrictions

As you likely already know, autistic individuals are more likely than others to have dietary restrictions. This is something to be aware and mindful of, as well as make known to others so that your child isn’t excluded in that sense. Even if there are no dietary restrictions, having preferred food items around for your child can be an effective tool in helping them remain calm and comfortable in stressful situations. With this said, also be mindful of extreme amounts of sugar available and accessible, as this could also heighten stress and anxiety during the holidays.  

10. Sleep!

This is a small one and may seem somewhat of a cliché, but getting enough sleep is so important for stress management- especially around the holidays. With all the things we have to get done during the holidays, sleep often gets neglected. But we also know that lack of sleep makes most people more vulnerable to irritability, mood changes, etc. Protect your time to sleep by prioritizing what needs to get done today verses what can wait until tomorrow so that you aren’t sacrificing sleep to get things done. Do your best to ensure that your child gets enough sleep, as well, as this can make a huge difference in their energy and behavior.  

Some of these holiday stress management tips may seem easier said than done. But we hope that you find at least a few of them helpful and easy to incorporate into your holiday season. Even if it’s just hearing that you CAN say no and set boundaries… doing so just may lead to a less stressful and more enjoyable season! 

And if you find your stress level increasing into the new year, our Counseling program helps parents of kids with autism, as well as children and teens on the spectrum. Contact us for more info. 

If you found these holiday stress management tips helpful, please share this post with others! 

Top Gifts for Autistic Kids and Teens

top gifts for autistic kids and teens
top gifts for autistic kids and teens

Do you enjoy shopping for gifts for the holidays? Some relish the hunt for the “perfect gift”, while others stress over what to get their family and friends. And when you have a child or loved one on the autism spectrum, you may think finding a gift is even more challenging. However, it doesn’t have to be. We have created several gift guides over the years for those with autism (linked below), and this year we are continuing the tradition. We know parenting and caring for someone diagnosed with autism can add extra levels of stress, so we’re taking the challenge out of finding gifts for autistic kids and teens.

Let Their Interests Guide You

Here are a few things to keep in mind: Every autistic child or teen is unique, so remember to consider their individual interests. If they have an obsession with dinosaurs, trains, music, Legos or a certain super hero, then go with what they love! You can also consider supporting their development with gifts that will help them with communication, fine motor, socialization and sensory needs. And if the gift combines both their unique interest and a developmental need, then you’ve struck gold! Additionally, you don’t always have to go with the age recommendation for the toy or game. What is more important to consider is the child’s interest and where they are developmentally right now.

Creative Play and Fine Motor Development

These gift ideas are great for creative play, while also using their hands for fine motor skill development.

  • Playfoam is a foam material that can be shaped into anything, will not dry out, is non-stick and not messy! Kids can squeeze and mold it into all kids of shapes.
  • Kinetic Sand is a popular item because of it’s non-messy nature as well as all the fun ways you can build and create with it.
  • Legos are a popular toy for autistic kids. Lego groups for autistic teens and kids are used in therapy to develop communication and social skills. The limitless ways you can build and create with them, along with the way they develop fine motor dexterity and strength make these an awesome gift for all kids!
  • There are several popular magnet building toys. However, Magz-Bricks are different than the usual flat, triangle, square and rectangle magnets, providing a new way to create and use your hands!

Sensory Gift Ideas

Many kids and teens on the autism spectrum have sensory needs. The following gift ideas are wonderful resources to support their sensory needs: This Thomas and Friends Pop-Up Train Tent is a great way to provide a quiet respite for kids who may become overstimulated. And if they love trains, even better!

An Inflatable Pea Pod will help a child who benefits from pressure (being squeezed and hugged). This one is designed for children ages 6-12 and this one if for little ones ages 2-6. These pressure tools can help them calm down before bed, or if they become overly stimulated. And a pressure vest may be a great option for teenagers.

For kids who move a lot, keeping their fingers busy with fidgets is a great way to help them focus. This unique weighted glove is great for sensory input, and it also provides proprioceptive input (stimulates muscles and joints) during handwriting. Not to mention it looks cool! You could also go with a sensory bundle pack to provide a variety ways to keep their hands busy and help them focus. And if your child has trouble sitting still, an inflatable seating disc may help them with attention and focus.

Communication

Many autistic children and teens have communication delays. Our amazing team of speech pathologists put together a list of toys and books and the communication goals to target when playing with them. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Potato head provide a wide array of speech and language development from receptive and listening skills to practicing two word phrases, using pronouns and more.

National Autism Resources

For a plethora of more gift ideas for autistic teens and kids, check out the National Autism Resources website for games to develop social skills, tools to build independence, and many more incredible ideas.

Remember the Parents

Let’s face it, parents of autistic kids and teens are often under additional stress and juggle more than parents of neurotypical children. So if you’re a grandparent, aunt, uncle or friend of a child or teen on the autism spectrum, consider a gift for their parents! Something that encourages self-care, like a massage or a mani/pedi. Or even a gift card for carry out dinner takes some stress off their plate. You could also give the gift of your time for the opportunity to get out of the house without kids!

Hopefully these ideas are helpful in finding a gift for your child, grandchild, niece or nephew. And if you’re local to us here in Metro Detroit and want to support a local business, there’s a great option for your shopping.   Toyolgy Toys has locations in Royal Oak, West Bloomfield and Bloomfield Hills, and they have website ordering available, as well as curbside pick up.

And for more gift ideas, here are the links to check our other gift guides: 

Great Gift Ideas for Kids with Autism

2019 Gift Guide for Kids with Autism

Gift Ideas for Kids with Autism

And if you have a gift idea for an autistic child or teen, please share it in the comments below!

6 Ways to Build a Positive Relationship With Your Child’s Teacher

positive relationship with child's teacher

As a parent of a child with autism, you want to know your child will be cared for at school. You want to send them to a quality learning environment and for their educators to know and understand your child. In order for your child to be successful, a positive relationship with your child’s teacher is a must. And establishing that relationship can also help alleviate stress on you. (This is a foundation of who we are at Healing Haven – providing strategies for parents to help manage their stress when you’re parenting a child with special needs.)

Here are some ways to foster positive teamwork between you and your child’s teacher to ensure a good school experience for your child.

1. Communicate well

This one is intentionally listed at the top- good communication is key to any healthy relationship! It is the foundation to how the school year will play out, how you will work through concerns, and greatly influences your child’s degree of success.

When communicating, especially for the first time, address your child’s teacher by their professional title and use a friendly tone. Remember to keep communication with your child’s teacher ongoing throughout the year rather than confined to only IEP meetings and parent/teacher conferences.

2. Start communication early

If you haven’t already, now is a good time to reach out to your child’s teacher. Though the beginning of the school year is typically very hectic for teachers, they highly appreciate this. Teachers often reach out first to parents, but you proactively reaching out shows the teacher you want to be on the same team. Establishing a positive relationship early can help ease solving problems later, as previously established trust provides a common foundation. Ask any and all questions you might have for your child’s teacher to solidify expectations. This keeps you in-the-know about what will happen in the classroom. And if your child has both a general education and a special education teacher, make sure to communicate with both of them.

3. Respect and trust

A trusting relationship between parent and teacher is almost guaranteed to help the teacher better understand the child. Likewise, practicing empathy strengthens relationships. Teachers, just like you in your role as a parent, are doing their best amidst many challenges. Even though it may be hard at first, err on the side of trust with the teacher. Most teachers would not be in their job if they did not want to put their students first and work for their best. Ally with your child’s teacher on the premise that you both want what is best for your child.

4. Go to the teacher first

Another way to build a positive relationship with your child’s teacher is to communicate concerns with the teacher first. It can be off-putting to the teacher when parents skip over communicating with them and go right to the principal to address issues or concerns. If no resolution is reached with the teacher, then consider bringing your concerns to administration.

5. Share about your child

You are the one who knows your child best, so communicate that with their teacher. Share helpful info that might not be included in your child’s IEP, such as likes/dislikes and strengths/weaknesses. IEP meetings often take place only once a year, so share any new info on your child with their teacher in the time between those meetings. Teachers want to know more about their students to better understand and serve them. A great habit to establish is creating an “About Me” sheet introducing your child to their new teacher at the beginning of the school year. This can be especially helpful if your child has limited verbal communication skills.

6. Show appreciation

Showing appreciation is incredibly impactful in building a positive relationship with your child’s teacher. Teachers often hear about the things they are doing wrong, which is very wearisome. Show your appreciation for your child’s teacher throughout the year in small ways, such as sending notes of encouragement and thanks. When the teacher does something you appreciate or value, tell them. Little acts of appreciation mean a lot to teachers as they manage so many pieces.  

BONUS Tip: Be a participative parent

We have added this one since we first published this post, so this is our bonus seventh tip: participate in your child’s classroom activities and events, if possible! Not only does participating give you a chance to experience your child’s classroom atmosphere, it shows the teacher that you care and want to be involved. Doing this can also be a great way of meeting other parents and building a community.

A note if your child also does ABA Therapy

Another important person to be brought into this parent/teacher relationship is your child’s BCBA. As teachers become more familiar with ABA therapy and how it benefits their students with autism, introducing them to your child’s BCBA can lead to a collaborative relationship between school and ABA.

Some of our BCBAs attend their client’s IEP meetings. They are another expert voice that can help ensure the proper supports are in place at school so your child can be as successful as possible.  BCBAs may also share with a client’s teacher strategies they use in the clinic. By bringing together all professionals working with your child, you can help create a more cohesive learning and therapy experience for your child.

All in all, cooperation between yourself and your child’s teacher not only benefits your child, but can also benefit you in reducing the potential stress of school, IEPs and supports. Remember that teachers want the best for their students and you want the best for your child. Unite on this premise and your child is likely to thrive!

Top Autism-Friendly Vacation Spots

Does the thought of going on vacation with your child with autism stress you out? Taking an individual with ASD away from their familiar environment and routine, to a place that may not understand their unique needs is no idea of a vacation for most parents. But thankfully there are many theme parks and resorts that are taking extra steps to create autism-friendly vacation destinations. In addition, there are also several cities throughout America that are Certified Autism Destinations (CADs). There really are places that are fun for everyone, including kids with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental needs. 

Here’s our list of the top autism-friendly vacation spots: 

Theme Parks –  

Sesame Place®  

As the first theme park in the world to be designated as a Certified Autism Center (CAC), Sesame Place is a perfect place to enjoy a variety of fun rides, shows and activities for every member of your family. They have earned this designation from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). Sesame Place currently has two locations – one in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and the other in San Diego, California. Both locations are recognized for their thorough training of their employees on autism, sensory awareness, social skills, communication, motor skills, emotional awareness and much more! 

On top of their trained staff, the park also has quiet rooms, noise-canceling headphones and low-sensory areas. They also provide low-sensory parade viewings, special character dining accommodations and meet-and-greets with Julia, Sesame Street’s first character with autism.  

LEGOLAND Resorts 

Located outside Orlando, LEGOLAND Florida added new features in 2017 to become an autism-friendly destination. LEGOLAND New York and LEGOLAND California followed suit shortly after. They created quiet rooms for families to take a break, equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, weighted blankets and LEGO building tables. The resort also offers a “blue hero pass” for guests on the spectrum. The pass allows the guest and their family expedited access to popular attractions. 

In addition to specialized training to equip their new employees with skills to more effectively interact with guests on the autism spectrum, the LEGOLAND Training & Development team created social stories to provide an illustrated, step-by-step walk-through of every theme park ride and show. This allows guests to know ahead of time what rides have loud noises, periods of darkness, bright lights or other elements that might be overwhelming for some. All of these special touches make LEGOLAND stand out as an autism-friendly vacation spot. 

Peppa Pig Theme Park in Orlando, Florida 

Adjacent to LEGOLAND Florida, this special park, created in 2022, is not only great for young children who have never been to a theme park, but also for children with disabilities! The park is partnered with the IBCCES and is an accredited CAS, offering many useful tools to optimize the experience of those on the spectrum. These tools include similar ones to what LEGOLAND offers, such as a “Hero Access Pass”, which allows guests who have trouble waiting in lines expedited access to popular attractions, and downloadable sensory and accessibility guides. Check out this new and fun park that your child is guaranteed to enjoy! 

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee 

Situated in the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood features a natural environment with lots of trees for shade, creeks running through the park, and a less crowded feel than many theme parks. Even with this setting, employees observed parents using bathrooms to try to calm overstimulated kids. As a result, the Dollywood team set out to create a haven for families that needed a break. In 2016 they added a Calming Room, which includes items like weighted blankets, fiber optic strands, a teepee and comfy soft places to relax. In 2017 they added a Calming Corner at its water park. Dollywood has certainly shown why they are an autism-friendly vacation spot. 

Tradewinds Resort in St. Petersburg, Florida 

Recognized as an autism-friendly resort by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach offers a wonderful vacation get-away for families who have a child with autism. At check-in they have room safety kits that provide parents with a door alarm, outlet covers and more. Additionally, they offer temporary safety tattoos, highlighting how this resort has thought of many details other places have not. Furthermore, their popular Konk Club (“Kids Only, No Kidding”) staff are trained in autism awareness.  Parents can plan with the staff before they arrive to make their child’s visit as fun and stress-free as possible.  They also created a downloadable social story to prepare kids for their vacation stay at the resort. 

Cities and Other Locations –  

Surfside Beach, South Carolina 

Proud to be named the world’s first official autism-friendly destination, Surfside Beach, South Carolina is a perfect choice for families wanting a beach vacation that provides specialized options for their child with autism. Located south of Myrtle Beach on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, Surfside Beach is unique in what they do not have – loud or overstimulating boardwalks and crowded beaches. They also partnered with CAN (Champion Autism Network) to create the CAN Card. Showing the CAN Card is a subtle way to let participating attractions, restaurants, hotels and resorts know that they have a family member with autism. Participating businesses are trained in how to accommodate the variety of needs a child with autism can have. 

Visalia, California 

Visalia, a Certified Autism Destination, offers several attractions, hotels, and businesses that are Certified Autism Centers, CACs, (specially trained through IBCCES). Whether your child likes going to the museum or simply exploring a downtown area, there is plenty to do for all members of the family in this city. Find out more over on the Visalia’s tourism site

Mesa, Arizona 

Mesa, recognized as the country’s first Autism Certified City, is similar to Visalia in that it is filled with CACs. In addition, the city encourages the option of a Live Life Limitless Passport, a digital passport “that serves as a tour of the destination”, providing all locations and attractions within the city that are CACs through text and email. Discover more about what this special city has to offer on their website.  

High Point, North Carolina 

High Point, the first CAD on the east coast of the country, offers endless options for the whole family. With a variety of autism-friendly attractions, restaurants, and lodging options, High Point is prepared to host your family’s vacation. The High Point website has even taken some of the planning stress off your shoulders by preparing an itinerary of what to do and when to do it! Or you can customize the itinerary to your family’s specific interests. Visit the city’s website to learn more.  

Additional Resources 

We hope these ideas for autism-friendly vacation spots help you to plan a get-away that your entire family will enjoy! To find a more expansive list of IBCCES-verified autism-friendly destinations, visit Autism Travel. We also wrote a companion blog post to this one, which includes destinations closer to Michigan, as well as international destinations. 

Please let us know in the comments if you’ve found another park, resort, or destination that was perfect for your family!