Often parents in the autism community will joke that we become more religious during the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving: we pray our children will behave while we are visiting relatives, we pray they will show interest in their gifts (and not just the ribbon), we pray they will sit at the dinner table, we pray they won't hit the relative who tries to kiss them, and above all - we pray that we will have the strength to politely ignore the judgments passed upon us and our ‘misbehaving' children.
Here are some areas of difficulties for children on the spectrum and their families during the holiday season, from my book, 41 Things to Know About Autism, published earlier this year :
• The stores are full of noise, lights, lots of people, and winter holiday music that can create major overwhelm for those with sensory processing challenges.
• Social requirements such as relatives wanting a hug or a kiss that can fell painful.
• Holiday dinners where they are expected to try foods or sit for long periods of time with so many people and so much commotion.
• Many children are mesmerized by the colors and textures of the ribbon and wrapping paper and do not open the present but stim (get engrossed and play) with the wrapping
• The child does not understand personal space or have safety notions and so may run around the house or try to play with something breakable.
• Relatives may think that the child is misbehaving, and may try to discipline the child, not realizing that the child really can't help it, and that discipline is not helpful when it comes to sensory overload and high anxiety.
• Parents have a difficult time because they know there are certain expectations of behavior that relatives and friends have and that the child cannot fulfill.
What can you do? With some preparation, planning and information sharing, the holidays can be less stressful and more enjoyable. Here are some tips on how to prepare your friends and relatives whom you will be visiting:
• Explain the difficulties your child has with the holiday dinner environment, decorations, noise etc.
• Let them know he is not just misbehaving, and that he is learning little by little to handle these situations
• Explain about dietary challenges so they don't expect him to eat what everyone else is eating.
• Ask if there is a quiet room (child -proof in terms of décor) where your child can retreat for some quiet time to escape the commotion and noise.
• Send them a short but sweet letter or email ahead of time explaining why your child acts the way he does and the difficulties of the holidays form his point of view. They will have a better understanding of why she won't wear a dress or he won't wear a necktie, and why as more and more people start arriving, he tries to escape the room.
To prepare your child:
• Make a social stories book about what will be happening and the behavioral expectations. If possible include photos of who he will be seeing, the house decorated during last year's holiday season. If he is going to church, do the same for that environment.
• Play some of the music he may be hearing at this holiday season.
• Practice unwrapping presents - wrap a bunch of boxes up with favorite treats inside and have him open them to get to them.
• Practice a handshake if he can tolerate that.
• Write rules together - ie how long he thinks he can tolerate sitting at table, and the expected behavior.
On the day of the holiday celebration:
• Remind your child of the agreed upon rules
• Pack some little toys he can play with in his lap at the dinner table
• Bring some foods he can eat, especially if he is on a specific diet.
• Arrive early so that the noise level builds up slowly for him.
• Do not let the expectations of others ruin your day. Do what you need to do to make it as comfortable as possible for you and your child.
Holidays can be difficult because of all the expectations, as well as the sensory challenges, but with planning and information sharing the holidays can be more enjoyable for all.