Planning for the Holiday Season
How can holidays be enjoyable for families with children who have autism?
The Christmas holidays can be a time of wonder and delight, taking part in family traditions, seeing loved ones, and a break from routine.
But the holidays are often a difficult time for children with autism. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, many families will still gather with extended family members during the holiday season. For a child under the spectrum, these gatherings of unfamiliar people, places, food, and noises can create a stressful environment that differs from their daily routine expectations.
So, how do you prepare your child if you’re planning on visiting others during the holidays?
This can be a difficult time of year, but with some preparation and planning, the holiday season can be enjoyable.
Tips for thriving during the holiday season
Preparation is crucial
It is important to determine how much preparation your child may need. Preparation can occur in various ways by using a calendar and marking the dates of various holiday events, or by creating a social story that highlights what will happen at a given event.
Decorations around the house may be disruptive for some.
It may be helpful to revisit pictures from previous holidays that show decorations in the house. If such a photo book does not exist, use this holiday season to create one.
For some it may also be helpful to take them shopping with you for holiday decorations so that they are engaged in the process. Or involve them in the process of decorating the house. And once holiday decorations have been put up, you may need to create rules about those that can and cannot be touched. Be direct, specific and consistent.
Keep new foods to a minimum
Be careful about introducing new foods or ones that aren’t usually consumed. Some children have food sensitivities and can’t tolerate traditional Christmas foods like shortbread, chocolate and other delights. They may be interested in trying them, but check with the parents first to see if they can handle certain foods. The joy in the moment is never worth the aftermath of an upset stomach or GI system later.
Surprises aren’t necessarily a good thing for those with ASD: this includes visitors and gifts
Some children on the spectrum don’t enjoy surprises. If this is the case, don’t give a wrapped gift or if you do, put a picture of what’s inside the box on the outside of it. Predictability is key to keeping children calm.
For families, limit the amount of visitors to the house. Large groups of guests can be challenging for the person on the spectrum to deal with; so can an invasion of their space.
If opening presents all in one day is too overwhelming, spread it out over several days. Some kids struggle with opening presents due to poor fine motor skills so you can put their things in gift bags with tissue paper. They then have independence with opening gifts.
Kids need a lot of alone time after opening gifts because they like to explore them at their own pace. Give them that space.
Break with tradition if it means happier children.
This can be a hard thing to do, but keep your child’s best interests at heart.
Create your own holiday traditions that are meaningful to your child. Find ways in which they can contribute to holiday activities. Maybe they like to put sprinkles on cookies, stamps on Christmas card envelopes, hang decorations, make cards by hand, or create e-cards on the internet.
Stick with your normal schedule as much as possible.
Try to follow normal mealtimes and bedtime. Getting enough sleep is important as are regular meals with preferred foods. If visiting someone, bring snacks in case your child doesn’t like what is being served or can’t tolerate it due to sensitivities.
If you need more information, read our blog How to Get My Child to Sleep Alone?
Create a safe zone for down time.
Have a quiet place for children to go both in their own home and in other homes. Ask your host ahead of time if there is an area your child can go to if they need some down time away from the group. Let people know your child’s limits and ask that they respect that. Sometimes a simple accommodation like lowering the volume of background music can make a huge difference.
Prepare family members for strategies to use to minimize anxiety or behavioral incidents.
Help them to understand if your child prefers to be hugged or not, needs calm discussions or provide other suggestions that will facilitate a smoother holiday season. If you kids becomes upset, it might also be helpful to coach others to remain calm and neutral in an effort to minimize behavioral outbursts.
Above all, know your loved one with autism.
Know how much noise and other sensory input they can tolerate. Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may take. If you detect that a situation may be becoming overwhelming, help them find a quiet area in which to regroup. And there may be some situations that you simply avoid (crowded shopping malls). Know their fears and those things that will make the season more enjoyable for them.
Don’t stress. Plan in advance. And most of all have a wonderful holiday season!