The holidays are a wonderful time for many families. But for those families with children or adults on the autism spectrum, the holidays can also be a more stressful time. I have a child who has autism spectrum disorder. She is now 15 years old. I know personally and professionally what the holidays are like when you are caring for a child with ASD. As autism is a wide spectrum, stereotyping the holidays for families is not completely possible. However, most families do have similar frustrations and difficulties. In order to prepare for these more constructively, here are some tips.
The first step is to go over with your child the time or dates of holiday activities. Place these on a calendar in writing or using pictures. Repetitively discuss these dates and the specific activities in order to mentally prepare your child so they know what to expect. Preparing your child for change is key as those with ASD depend upon routines. They can become overwhelmed, anxious, or agitated with unexpected changes. The holidays for most of us are filled with changes and differences, even in everyday routines. The loss of even the normal school schedule is typically enough to cause problems for many children. Creating social stories that discuss upcoming activities and how to behave during these changes, can decrease stress levels for the person with ASD.
Prepare your child for decorations that may be going up in your home and try to include those that your child likes. Do not assume that the changes in the home will not bother your child.
Keep routines as similar as possible.
It is important to maintain regular routines and schedules as much as possible, even if you are traveling. These may include mealtimes, bedtime routines, hygiene schedules, and many others. As most children with ASD have sensory issues and are picky eaters, try to have the same foods available. This will provide some “sameness” and comfort. Also, have your child’s favorite sensory objects or toys available.
Maintain reasonable expectations.
Your child is likely to have some autism meltdowns or tantrums related to changes and stressors inherent in the holidays. Understand that the importance of the holiday for your child is that he/she enjoys it and not that he/she enjoys it in the same exact way everyone else enjoys the holiday.
Be prepared to advocate for your child with family members.
Family members, especially those not around your child regularly, may give unsolicited advice. Plan a statement on how you will handle this, politely. Keep in mind, that they do not know what it is like to raise a child with ASD.
Be prepared to deal with repetitive statements or behaviors regarding the gift(s) your child wants.
Children with ASD often have a lot of anticipatory anxiety. One of the ways they may deal with this is by repetitively discussing the expected gift. Plan a way to limit how often they can ask for the gift. This may be a limited amount of time or a limited number of times they can discuss the gift.
Practice how to open gifts.
Opening gifts can be overwhelming and stressful for those on the autism spectrum. They may need to walk away in between gifts or open gifts much more slowly, maybe even over days. If there will be a formal opening of gifts in front of others, then practice how to wait while others open gifts too, as well as what to say or how to behave if they get an undesirable gift.
Plan a safe or calm space.
Teach them how and when to access the calm space if he/she gets overwhelmed during the holidays, especially when extra family is around. Your child should know exactly where this space is ahead of time and how to let you know he/she needs to access this place. If you notice signs your child is getting stressed, then take him/her to the calm space promptly and calmly. As you know best what your child likes, plan ahead to have in this space music or toys that typically help calm your child.
Make traveling less painful by planning.
If flying, notify the airport or airline of your child’s ASD so that they can let you know what accommodations they offer. Rehearse travel if possible by attending special autism programs at the airport or by using pictures and/or social stories. Whether driving or flying, have familiar toys or preferred items available at all times. This can help to calm stressful situations. Prepare your child for unexpected delays by using social stories or other communication systems.
Prepare family members.
Educate family members about your child. Discuss strategies with them beforehand that are helpful to calm your child when they become anxious or overwhelmed. This should especially include whether or not your child likes to be hugged. Family members should know how your child best communicates and what kind of interactions they prefer. Should your child become anxious, it is helpful to prepare your family to remain calm and neutral to minimize behavioral outbursts. Furthermore, as you know your child better than anyone else, it is best to not allow other family members to discipline your child. They may reinforce bad behaviors unintentionally.
Enjoy the holidays yourself.
Trying to pre-plan for every situation and be on guard for your child can be exhausting. Do your best to personally spend time with family. You may need to ask a family member to offer some brief respite. If you have a spouse or partner, then you should trade off responsibilities.
I wish you a peaceful holiday season and a happy New Year.