love hearts

We all hold precious memories of Valentine’s Days from our childhoods. Cupid hearts, handmade cards and crafts, and more candy than was ever sensible to eat. But while they form a part of our cherished childhood memories, Valentine’s Day can create difficulties for children with autism. However, with some careful planning, you can ensure that your son, daughter or child in your class with ASD can form their own special memories of the big day.

Autism and Valentine’s Day – possible problems

Firstly, it’s important to understand the potential triggers that can accompany the day, which can include:

  • A break from routine
  • Different social norms and signals
  • Unfamiliar words and phrases
  • Unusual decorations and displays  
  • Group activities with unclear purposes

While it’s of course impossible to avoid all of these, there are however plenty of steps you can take to help prepare your child. And in this article I’ve listed what I consider to be the five most important, which any parent or carer can do.  

1. Write a Valentine’s Day social story

Social stories are short descriptions of a particular situation or activity which provides specific information on what to expect and why. For children with autism these can really help to build greater social understanding of everyday situations. It does this by enabling them to visualize and predict their role and its outcome.

First developed by the therapist Carol Gray, the great thing about social stories is that anyone can write one about any situation. All you need to do is consider the end goal of the story and what your child needs to understand to achieve this. You then create a story and place your child as a key character within it. 

So for a Valentine’s Day social story, you could write a story that has the end goal of your child giving Valentine’s cards to classmates. The story would show the significance behind this gesture, by explaining how other children feel when they receive these cards.

2. Incorporate your child’s specific interests

Incorporating your child’s interests is a great way to get them to engage with the day. So if your child loves Frozen they could draw their favorite character on the cards that they make. Or alternatively you could buy some cards that feature this.   

It’s also important to bear in mind, particularly on a day like Valentine’s Day, that your child may form friendships based on shared interests. Meanwhile, they may be less engaged in the emotional side of relationships. Therefore, ensuring that their specific interests take a lead role in their creativity and gift giving helps to ensure that your child remains engaged in these activities.    

3. Plan ahead with the school

As with any change of routine, these need to be planned carefully, by giving your child plenty of notice. So check with the school what Valentine’s Day activities they’re planning on doing and when. Make sure you get all the small details from the school as well. This includes things like the decorations they plan on putting up and any colored clothing that children are going to be encouraged to wear.  

Once you know the schedule for this, you can gradually increase your child’s exposure to this in the days running up to it. You can also incorporate elements of what the school has planned into a Valentine’s Day social story, as discussed above.

4. Prepare for specific activities with role plays 

As with social stories, role plays are another great way to “learn by doing”. This helps children with ASD to familiarize themselves with common social interactions. This in turn helps to equip them with the language and actions that are required to engage appropriately when in these situations.   

To prepare for Valentine’s Day, you could role play giving out cards to classmates, where you and other family members play the part of the classmates. This can help your child to practice what they say and how they act when they do this. Once you’ve completed this role play, reverse it so you’re giving cards to your child. This will help them learn how to process receiving cards as well as giving them.

5. Discuss the meaning behind Valentine’s Day

All of the above steps are of course quite abstract, so it’s important that you also discuss the meaning behind Valentine’s Day. How you do this and the level of detail you go into will depend on your child’s age and level of development. 

However, the most important aspect to get across is that Valentine’s Day is about celebrating the people in our lives that are the most important to us. This can therefore be used as a great way for your child to identify all the people in their life that are special to them.

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Featured image photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

Estee Rothstein BCBA, Executive Director at Golden Care Therapy

Estee Rothstein BCBA, Executive Director at Golden Care Therapy

Estee Rothstein is the Executive Director of Golden Care Therapy. She is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with a master’s degree in Education. A proud mom of six, Estee brings her unique parenting perspective to her long career working with children with autism that spans more than 20 years. Outside of running her business, Estee also provides advice and consultancy to other professionals working in the field, and is a frequent speaker and writer on a range of autism topics.