Managing emotions and anticipation can be difficult for unique learners any time of year. It can be particularly difficult during the holidays. These tips will help the whole family have more fun this Christmas.

When Out in Public

Take a moment to understand the context of your child’s behavior. Of course, do not compromise safety or your family rules to do so, but when it’s appropriate, observe your child’s behavior long enough to determine its purpose.

Next, is the behavior helping the situation? How?

Determine if there is a workable alternative. A loud, “Stop!” provides no workable information to most unique learners. Instead, explain how the behavior is making it hard for other people. Offer the alternative solution as a quick and respectful redirect.

It is important to take a private moment before and after events to explain what can be expected (before), and how to deal with those events (after).

Special Tips for the Less Social Unique Learner

Children on the autism spectrum may have difficulty easily flowing from one social engagement to another.

The complex expectations for the unique learner entering a social gathering is similar to the expectations placed on yourself when walking into your college exam hallway nervous and uncertain about what you will be tested on! Social outings can be scary for unique learners like huge exams can be scary for many of us.

Individuals on the autism spectrum can have profound responses to changing social demands. Many are unable to voice any concern before they bolt out the back door and seek isolation.

When over-stimulation abounds, start with a strong a positive form of redirection to gain your child’s attention. With the child’s attention momentarily caught, move into a simple activity that has been achieved in past.

Once attention is gained and redirection to a transitional relevant task has occurred, then consider involving your child in a 5-10-minute mutual project, to help your child experience a “here and now” activity versus spinning out of control considering an event that they are anticipating occurring in the future. Your child needs continuous re-orienting to here and now.

What this looks like at home and familiar, friendly places:

Some children cannot be reassured that an event will truly happen. Unique learners sometimes have trouble understanding timeframes. They cannot anticipate how far something is in the future or how long it will take to come to pass. For them, it’s happening right now.

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Not understanding the concept of a future time (such as “5 more minutes…”) as well as not understanding how to manage anticipation can make it difficult to manage everyday events. For unique learners, understanding that something great will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet, makes no real sense.

Michael had a difficult time waiting for Auntie Julie to arrive. He was in time-out several times. He had arguments over toys with his little sister Emily. He spilled his water on the carpet and tripped over the dog.

His mom was wrapping presents and trying to get dinner in the oven. In her own anticipation of company arriving, she wasn’t operating in detective mode to observe why Michael was so antsy.

After the fiftieth time he asked when Auntie Julie would arrive, his mom finally sat him down in front of his favorite show. She told him, “Auntie Julie will be here in the time it takes to watch your show two times.” Michael relaxed once he had this concrete connection. He settled in to watch his show and was happy and ready to greet his aunt when she arrived.

What this looks like within intimate spaces – the long car trip:

You are probably well aware of the distance between your home and your relative’s. You also know that it takes a certain amount of time to travel a certain amount of distance. When a person has a problem understanding time (past, present, future) and space (the distance between Uncle Doug’s house and his sister and her kids) it is often connected to a more basic challenge: a challenge in rhythm.

Observe how difficulty perceiving time and space, can be the true source of discord in the back seat:

Logan, a unique learner, his brother Jonathan and their parents were on a trip to family’s house for Christmas. Dad’s explanation of how long it would take to get there was reassuring for Jonathan. He remembered Uncle Doug’s indoor slide and that made the long car ride worth it. Besides, he realized, he’d probably sleep the whole way.

While Dad was describing the long car trip, Logan was remembering whooshing down the slide. As if his brain said, ‘you had me at Uncle Doug!”, Logan could not stop recalling how much fun that slide was. “Mom, does Uncle Doug still have his slide? Can I play on the slide? Are we at his house? Mom, when are we going to get there?”

Mom patiently re-describes Dad’s original explanation. Logan suddenly becomes aware of the varied smells and feelings surrounding him in the car. The seat belt is too tight, and his legs poke out so he has to be careful to not hit the back of Dad’s seat.

These experiences collide in Logan’s brain along with thoughts anticipating their arrival. “What about the dog, Mom? Will Duke knock me over? Can I play with him? When do we get there? I want to be there.”

Can you see how Logan gives you clues that he continually confuses past, present and future through his questions to his Mom? Can you see how confusing blending these timeframes can be? It’s all happening to his brain now. It’s very disorienting!

Relieving the Pressure

Whatever anticipation and excitement that is building in your unique learner, can be managed in some relatively easy ways.

Re-focusing individuals on simplistic tasks that involve repetitious physical and mental sequencing is very grounding. You’re trying to pull the individual back to the present moment where they can have a meaningful impact, feel a sense of mastery and purpose and therefore, emotionally secure. At home, this could be a number of crafts or activities. In a car, you may need to plan ahead and get creative.

As you are planning, remember to include the car experience or “waiting” time just as richly as the rest of the holiday or vacation. Christmas morning or the travel destination isn’t the only important aspect. Keep in mind the old saying, “It’s not the fish, it’s the fishing!” In this family’s case, it’s not the indoor slide at Uncle Doug’s, it’s about the whole journey, together as a family.

When you remember that it’s the entire journey that is valuable, whether a car ride or the entire holiday season, you can plan fun, mini “destinations” on the schedule. This can also help relieve some of the pressure that is building from the anticipation.

Read How to Manage Emotions and Anticipation During the Holidays.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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