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Using Valentine's Day to Help Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By: Dr. Oscar Bukstein

Valentine’s Day is a fun holiday for children and adults alike to take time to show those around them that they are important by exchanging Valentine’s cards, candy or gifts.

For children with autism spectrum disorder, Valentine’s Day provides a perfect opportunity for parents to teach children about social relatedness, better enabling them to relate to their peers over a shared interest of activities and holidays such as Valentine’s Day:

1. Use your child’s preferred interest (i.e., super heroes, Thomas the train, angry birds) to help them engage in the holiday by creating Valentine’s Day cards for family members or classmates.  There are a variety of Valentine’s cards with different themes that a child with ASD can choose from based on their interests.

2. Give your child the chance to take ownership over selecting the type of candy, snack or trinket that will accompany their Valentine’s Day cards.  Your child may already have an idea of what they want to give their classmates or family members based on things they have heard or seen leading up to the holiday.  For children who have difficulty communicating verbally, you may want to present them two to three choices when you are at home or at the grocery store so they can choose by pointing, signing or using their augmentative communication devices.  

3. Many schools have Valentine’s Day parties so it is important for parents to find out from their child’s teacher what the schedule will be so you can prepare your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder for the change in their routine.  Don’t underestimate the importance of providing your child with information about Valentine’s Day- it is helpful to let them know there may be decorations, students might be wearing red or pink clothes, classroom furniture may be re-arranged for the party and students may try to give each other cards or sweets.  Some parents find it helpful to create a social story that specifically details all of the events of the day. 

4. If your child is on a special diet, parents may want to send a note in advance to the Room Mom or Teacher making them aware of your child’s diet so they can either prepare a separate treat for your child or you can find out if you should provide an additional treat for your child’s class.

5. Teach your child about different situations that may happen on Valentine’s Day by role playing exchanging Valentine’s cards or treats.

6. For older children, parents can discuss with their child the purpose behind Valentine’s Day.  Explain that Valentine’s Day is a special day where we show the people in our lives that we care about them.  This is a perfect opportunity for parents to help children understand the importance of identifying special people in their lives such as family members, teachers, classmates and friends. After your child identifies each person, ask them to identify something that they like about that person and use this as an opportunity to address perspective taking skills (another deficit many children with ASD experience) by finding a mutual interest between the child and someone else in their life.