Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Fall 2009

Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Holiday Activities

By Jennifer LaMarca
Lovaas Institute – Indianapolis

Many holiday traditions have become a rite of passage for young children. But many of the most festive of holiday activities can be unfamiliar and overwhelming for a child with autism. As the holiday season approaches, you may want to help prepare your child to have a positive experience with some of the more common holiday activities. By creating teaching situations that maximize a child's success and allow repeated practice, many children not only learn how to participate in the activity, but are also more likely to demonstrate interest in the activity, because of the natural reinforcers the activities include. Below are suggested steps that may be used to teach a few of holiday activities and the natural reinforcement present in each activity.

Halloween – Trick or Treating

Reinforcement: candy
(For those children who do not like candy or who should not eat it, the steps below can end with your child exchanging the candy for a preferred food or activity).

Basic Sequence
It may be helpful to have two adults, such as a parent & an instructor, or one adult can play both roles.

  • Adult 1: "Let's play trick or treat!"
  • Adult 1 hands child a basket and guides him to a door in the house (e.g., a bathroom door).
  • Adult 1 prompts child to knock on the door.
  • Adult 2 opens the door.
  • Adult 1 prompts child to say, "Trick or treat."
  • Adult 2 hands child a piece of candy (or other preferred food item).
  • Child gets to immediately eat the candy.
  • Repeat procedure a few times with other doors.

Expanding and Generalizing
Prompts are faded and the situation is expanded to resemble what will really occur on Halloween. The order in which these steps occur may vary by child, but often include:

  • Prompts are faded for knocking on the door and for saying, "Trick or treat!"
  • Before getting the basket, your child puts on his/her Halloween costume.
  • Child practices saying, "Thank you," when receiving treats.
  • Child eats the candy/food only after going to all of the doors.
  • Child also practices using the doorbell and going to the front door of the house.

Christmas – Decorating the Christmas Tree

Reinforcement: completion of a task and a beautiful tree

Basic Sequence

  • Adult says, "Time to decorate the Christmas tree" and presents a basket containing 3 ornaments.
  • The child takes each ornament out of the basket and places it on a small Christmas tree (e.g., 2 feet tall or less).
  • Once the activity is completed, provide a large amount of reinforcement (e.g., lavish praise, spinning the child around, singing a song, etc.).

Expanding & Generalizing
Prompts are faded and the situation is expanded to resemble what will really occur at Christmas.

  • The number of ornaments is increased from 3 to 10 or more, depending on the child's earlier responses to hanging up ornaments.
  • As the number of ornaments increases, parents or siblings begin to also put ornaments on the tree from the same basket.
  • Other forms of motivation and reinforcement may be attempted such as listening to Christmas music while hanging the ornaments, using ornaments that the child demonstrates interest in, or ending the activity by turning on the Christmas tree lights.

Gift Exchanges

Reinforcement: toy

Basic Sequence

  • Adult presents a wrapped gift.
  • Adult assists child as needed to unwrap the box and child immediately plays with gift.

Expanding & Generalizing
The situation initially includes easy-to-open presents and toys/reinforcers in which the child already demonstrates an interest. Parents and instructors gradually make the situation resemble what will really occur at a celebration event (e.g., Christmas, Hanukkah, birthday parties).

  • The box is initially covered with a few pieces of Kleenex and a couple pieces of Scotch tape. Over time, real wrapping paper is used and more tape is put on the present.
  • The number of presents the child unwraps may increase from 1-3.
  • As the number of presents increases, the instructor and child take turns opening them.
  • For some children, the instructor prompts the child after opening the present to hold it up and say, "Look, it's Thomas" or a more general phrase such as, "Look what I got!"
  • The presents are initially highly preferred toys or even food. However, when more presents are used, a variety of different toys can be used.

Do you have other ideas of skills to incorporate in the athletic arena? Share them with us here

The names of all children in this newsletter have been changed in respect for family confidentiality.


Motor Cycle Racer! Put the child on your lap, facing away from you, for a motorcycle ride. Use your fists as handlebars and rev up. Go around curves by leaning the child left or right with all important motorcycle sounds. Then crash!

Media Player! Work with the computer on, and Microsoft Media Player turned on. Set it to a song or punch line that the child likes to hear, and click start to play it while the child watches the light show.

Happy New Year! Blow and shake New Years Eve noise makers.

Tower Disaster! Set up a tower ten feet away and let the child run at it.

I've Got a Secret! Tell the child, "I have a secret," and when they listen up close, blow quiet raspberries to the ear.




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