House Guests: A How To
One of the many things that can cause stress for families with special needs children is the isolation they may experience from friends and family.
Families may avoid gatherings or hosting guests, as these changes in schedule and environment can often be triggers for problem behaviors for their loved ones. These events can be unnerving, however, it is important have a support system and spend time with friends and family to maximize quality of life and mental health wellness.
There are many things that can be done to alleviate barriers and ensure families can successfully entertain house guests in their homes. Once you make the decision to work on this, it is important from the beginning to include all members of the family and support team, including your loved one with special needs, in planning every aspect of the visit. This means including them in the planning. You can ask them what they would like to do as activities, give them choices, and respect boundaries they may ask to be put in place.
When beginning your plan, it may be best to start with some type of assessment. You may want to map out what your child can do now while guests are present, and then come up with where you want them to be (long-term goal). For example, your child may only be able to tolerate having one person over for 30 minutes, however, you want to host the next holiday party. Once you have these two ends mapped out, you can come up with short-term goals that will give you opportunities to reward your child on their path to the ultimate goal. For the previous example, you may want to start with a short-term goal of having one person over for one hour. You may also want to come up with a list of people that can support you. This could include educational or private service providers and even friends that already have a relationship with your child. Your support system can help you not only develop your plan, but also execute it. During this time remember
to be proactive, realistic, and implement evidence-based strategies.
To help your plan (or assessment) of having guests, here are some common questions along with important considerations:
Question: What are your personal goals and desired outcomes of the stay?
Considerations: Are you looking to reconnect with family and friends, or do you want your child to socialize and spend time with your guests? If it is the former, then it is okay if your child does not participate in most or all of the time together. Remember that this is a visit for you to get any support you need. If it is the latter, then it is important to make sure the activities are geared to things that are reinforcing and familiar to your child.
Question: When should the visit occur?
Considerations: Make sure you have enough time to teach, practice, and shape the desired behaviors. Try to avoid having the first visits be during holidays or special events as these historically tend to already have increased stress levels associated with them. Think about the season, weather, and activities available. If you live in a place with cold weather that can limit your choice of activities, decide if a visit in the spring or summer might be better. Control the things that you can, including times of the year or the guests you invite.
Question: How long will the visitors stay?
Considerations: Think about when you had visitors in the past and how long they stayed or which parts of the visit were successful. Plan ahead. Consider how much time you have to prepare for the visit and the space you have. Can you ask your guests to stay locally in a hotel? Consider starting with just neighbors, friends, or coworkers coming over for short periods of time. Keep in mind how this is affecting everyone, both the hosts and the guests.
Question: What is the proposed schedule for the visit?
Considerations: Consider how your family routines will be affected by the visit. Try to designate a safe space, calm down area, and times in the schedule where your child can have quiet or free time apart from the guests. Have a list of reinforcing activities you know can help them to manage sensory issues and help them remain calm. For example, you can schedule independent activities like coloring, movies, or play. Make sure you provide clear expectations for your child so they know what is coming next and the approximate length of the activity. The use of visual schedules, timers, and first-then boards can help in setting these expectations. Collaborate with your professional team on which type of visual can help best.
Question: What are my guests going to think?
Considerations: If you have not already done so, have an honest conversation about your family’s routines and your child’s diagnosis with your visitor. Possibly prepare a script or responses for difficult times to help make the visit easier. Let them know what to expect ahead of time. It is also important to set expectations with your child. Give specific examples and expectations for all stakeholders (family members and guests). For example, if your loved one expresses the desire to leave the situation, be sure to honor that request. The same would go for your guest. If they are feeling uncomfortable due to problem behaviors, provide an alternative place or activity they can engage in while you work to deescalate the situation.
Question: Meals are so tough; how can we have a nice relaxing meal?
Considerations: Choose your battles. If your child is a picky eater, you can offer preferred foods throughout the weekend. This might even help to pair house guests with reinforcement. If you need to, have a quiet meal with your loved one before the group eats so they can be successful. If you have the resources, enlist the help of personal care assistants or respite so you can have time to visit with your guest. You know your loved one better than anyone, so follow their cues and adjust as needed. Consider ordering out or a sticking with simple menu.
It is important to remember that all of these strategies must be practiced prior to the dates of the actual visits. The more familiar the individual is with the tools you are using, the more successful they will be. Pick your battles and allow for flexibility. Your child does not need to do every activity, eat all of the food, or wear the perfect outfit. Enlist your support teams to help out wherever they can.
Modify routines if you need to. Be realistic in your goals. The most important thing is to try to remember no one ever has a perfect house visit, so go into it without any pre-conceived ideas and just enjoy your guests! You will probably walk away with some good stories. Remember that it will get a little easier over time and there are so many benefits!
Holly Downs is the Director of Ethical Compliance at PBS Corp. and an instructor at Capella University. She is a certified behavior analyst with over a decade of experience in various populations.
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This post originally appeared on our July/August 2021 Magazine