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How to prepare an autistic child for a social gathering

It’s that time of year, as they say. And for Emily and Richard, parents to five-year-old Gregory who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in late 2019, it’s certainly the most anxiety-driven season.

“We have huge families – I have three sisters and they’re all married with kids, and Richard has four siblings, and they’re all married with kids too,” explains Emily. “We stopped trying to coordinate Christmases a long time ago, so three of us have open houses and people can drop in any time on Christmas day, which sounds nice, doesn’t it?

“But for us, the fact that there’s no possibility of a run-through or a rehearsal for such spontaneous events… it takes a lot of deep breathing and preparation on our part as parents!”

Social gatherings, for any child, are a great way to practice their communication and social skills, but for autistic kids, they can be very overwhelming! Consider the social rules which could be complex even for the most experienced partygoer, the overstimulation, the unpredictability. The music. The food. The length of time one is expected to stay. Oh, the anxiety!

However, all is not lost. There is a way to help your autistic child navigate through social events – you just need a bit of preparation and a lot of compassion and understanding.

Think about your child before you head out to an event. Are there any environmental events or triggers that you can forecast that might cause issues? What activities do they enjoy (and what do they not enjoy)? What are they good at doing? If they’re triggered, what will that look like? If they’re triggered, what are your surefire (or at least most effective) ways of calming them?

Before attending any party, ask the host for as much information as possible. Find out how many people are invited. Ask about the music, the lighting, the noises. Will it be filled with people your child knows, or will there mostly be strangers? Is it a sit-down event, or are people free to roam and sit wherever they choose? Is it formal, or is it a space where you can come and go as you please?

After you collect as much information as possible, talk to your child. Ask them if they’re concerned about anything, and let them know as much possible what you know. You can even offer to visit the location before the party, and “rehearse” the event, so that your child knows what to expect.

If, after all this, you decide to go to the event and your child is triggered or anxious, don’t hesitate to remove them. There’s no need to be embarrassed – your child is having difficulty and that’s okay.

You may go to several events and each may be successful, or each may end in tears. Again, that’s okay. You’re giving your child opportunities to learn how to master their social and communication skills, and that’s what matters.

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